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Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs on the U.S. crisis in family farming

October 25, 2000
11 a.m. EDT

Chuck Hassebrook and Lisa Hardaway (who's quoted in our CNN.com/career story on the family-farming issue) are with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Rural Affairs, based in Walthill, Nebraska. In their work with farm and ranching issues, they see firsthand the diminishment of small farms in the United States. The average American farm with annual gross sales between $50,000 and $250,000 has a net income of only $23,159. More than 80 percent of a farmer's gross income is eaten by farming expenses. And the median weekly income of an American small farmer in 1998 was $447, a little more than $23,000 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In our live chat, Hassebrook, the center's program director, spoke about the impact of large corporate "factory farms" on small family farms and about governmental policy that plays a role in this scenario.

CNN Chat Moderator: Welcome to CNN.com, Chuck Hassebrook.

  READ THE REPORT
The United States' National Commission on Small Farms reports that 300,000 farms disappeared from the American landscape between 1978 and 1998. Read more on the threat to family farming careers.

Chuck Hassebrook: It's my pleasure to join you this morning.

CNN Chat Moderator: How would you describe the situation for family farms in the United States today?

Chuck Hassebrook: I think we have a "crisis of hope" out here. The incomes of family farmers and ranchers are falling, and we're losing our young.

Question from WxDude: Why do we need genetically enhanced crops when production outweighs sales and grain prices are so low?

"This nation has pursued a policy of open trade, and I think there have been benefits and costs to that. In my judgment, we need to change our trade policy to allow for trade, but according to international rules, to ensure that the environment is protected and that family farmers and working people benefit, in all nations."
— Chuck Hassebrook, Center for Rural Affairs

Chuck Hassebrook: I think genetically enhanced crops are just one tool; I'm not sure it's a question of whether we need them, I think we have them, and the critical question is what we're going to do with them. In my judgment, much of what we've done has not benefited family farms and ranches. I think we need a different approach to using them so they support a system of agriculture that's both more environmentally sustainable and also sustains family farms and rural communities.

Question from Sunny1CNN: What's the incentive to continue family farming?

Chuck Hassebrook: I think for individuals who want to farm, I think that they obtain a high degree of satisfaction and fulfillment from shouldering the responsibility to own and to manage their own operation, and from the standpoint of rural communities, the incentive is that family farming supports much healthier and more equitable communities than does corporate farming.

CNN Chat Moderator: Are there any programs or organizations that are providing aid or support to farmers?

Chuck Hassebrook: Certainly our organization has as a major element of its mission to strengthen family farming and ranching, and I would urge your participants this morning to contact me at chuckh@cfra.org to get our newsletter to learn about our work. There are public policies that ostensibly have been designed to support family farms, but unfortunately I think they've been bastardized to essentially help large megafarms devour family farms.

"I believe that many consumers would like to purchase food in a manner that supports environmentally and socially sound farming, and the best way to do that is from family farms. And finally, as citizens, I think we all lose when wealth and power become more concentrated and society becomes inequitable in any part of our nation."
— Chuck Hassebrook, Center for Rural Affairs

Question from HaleyCNN: Have the latest recalls made on corn products affected many farmers?

Chuck Hassebrook: I'm not aware of a direct effect on family farms, although there could be one that I'm not aware of. I think developments like this are, in the long term, of concern to family farms, to the extent they undermine confidence with what farmers are doing. This is a case where I think the responsibility for this problem lies with the companies who sold seed, and encouraged farmers to plant a product that wasn't approved for human consumption. Farmers sometimes become the innocent victims in these deals.

Question from WxDude: Why does the U.S. buy foreign grains when we produce it here?

  QUICK VOTE
graphic How concerned are you about the perilous condition of family-farming careers in the United States?

I'm very worried. Family farms shouldn't be overtaken by "factory farms," we need both.
I have no strong feeling either way.
I'm not worried. Farming, like many other industries, is more efficiently handled by corporations.
View Results

Chuck Hassebrook: I think the answer to that is, of course, because this nation has pursued a policy of open trade, and I think there have been benefits and costs to that. In my judgment, we need to change our trade policy to allow for trade, but according to international rules, to ensure that the environment is protected and that family farmers and working people benefit, in all nations.

Question from CathCNN: What issues are farmers dealing with today that they weren't dealing with, say, 10 years ago?

Chuck Hassebrook: The most traumatic change over the last 10 years has been the degree to which large corporations are gaining ownership of the production process. Ten years ago, that was the rule in poultry production; farmers simply received a fee to produce corporateowned birds following corporate instructions. That's now increasingly true in hog production, and we see potential for that to become the case in corn and soybean production.

Question from LJNoel-CNN: Back when I lived in Wisconsin, there was a lot of dealing with milk pricing, and about having fixed pricing. What do you know about that and could you elaborate?

Chuck Hassebrook: There have been a variety of proposals within states to elevate milk prices. But I'm going to offer a perspective on that. While it's important to ensure that farmers receive a reasonable price, it's most important to do it in a way that benefits family farms, because some of the measures to increase price and income disproportionately benefit the largest farms and help them gain an advantage over family farms.

Question from CathCNN: Do most farmers get into the business through family tradition or are there people who just decide they want to be farmers?

Chuck Hassebrook: There are both. Many join through family tradition, but at the Center for Rural Affairs, we work to link retiring farmers who have no family member who wants to farm with other folks, who'd like a chance to get started.

CNN Chat Moderator: Does the consumer lose out in any way when more and more produce is derived from corporate agriculture?

Chuck Hassebrook: I think the consumer does lose out. I think that having family farms offers consumers more diversity and choice in buying food. I believe that many consumers would like to purchase food in a manner that supports environmentally and socially sound farming, and the best way to do that is from family farms. And finally, as citizens, I think we all lose when wealth and power become more concentrated and society becomes inequitable in any part of our nation.

Question from LJNoel-CNN: How can we tell if the produce we buy is from a family farm or a corporate farm?

Chuck Hassebrook: Right now there really isn't a way, but I think one of the challenges for us in the future is to more clearly offer consumers that choice through some new labels. Because right now, some of the nation's largest corporate farms call themselves "family farms." Probably the only way to do it now is by buying directly from a family farmer or by searching out a reputable label that clearly demonstrates that it's family farmbased.

"There is nothing inevitable about family farm decline. Family farms are efficient, and they provide many of the things that consumers, citizens, say they most want. We are losing family farms because there's a profound policy bias in this nation to large corporate agriculture. It's decisions made by people that are driving family farm decline, and they can be reversed by people."
— Chuck Hassebrook, Center for Rural Affairs

Question from CathCNN: With all of the problems and concerns that go along with farming, what are the things that make it worthwhile?

Chuck Hassebrook: Love of the land. Love of raising food for people. Commitment to rural communities, and the fulfillment of being part of one of the world's most creative professions. And most important professions.

CNN Chat Moderator: Do you feel that any of the presidential candidates are interested or are addressing the problems of farmers today?

Chuck Hassebrook: I've been disappointed in the attention given to farming in this debate, and I've been particularly disappointed in the (lack of) willingness of either candidate to make a clear commitment to challenge bias toward largescale agriculture in our current policies.

Question from LJNoel-CNN: What can we do to help raise awareness of the plight of the family farmer?

Chuck Hassebrook: I think that stories like the one CNN.com/career did this morning are important. In addition, I think it's vitally critical to start covering this bias toward corporate enterprise, public policy. Today, federal government is making multimillion-dollar payments to the nation's largest farms, to help them drive family farms out of business. We have to draw the attention of the nation to that; it's not right.

CNN Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

Chuck Hassebrook: The key closing point I would make is that there is nothing inevitable about family farm decline. Family farms are efficient, and they provide many of the things that consumers, citizens, say they most want. We are losing family farms because there's a profound policy bias in this nation to large corporate agriculture. It's decisions made by people that are driving family farm decline, and they can be reversed by people.

CNN Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Chuck Hassebrook.

Chuck Hassebrook: Thanks to everyone for joining us.

Chuck Hassebrook joined the chat via telephone from Walthill, Nebraska. CNN.com provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Wednesday, October 25, 2000.



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RELATED STORIES:
Endangered careers: Family farming
October 25, 2000


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