Farmers to America: We Can’t Breathe. Generations of farmers have fought the system. Why won’t they act now?

Farmers to America: We Can’t Breathe. Generations of farmers have fought the system. Why won’t they act now?

Published on June 2, 2020

By Alan Lewis

“I can’t breathe.”

For 75 years this is the cry we have heard from generations of our American farmers. Year after year, federal policy makers have emboldened centralized management of agricultural markets so that only the big and powerful producers can survive. Bankruptcies and suicide are normal in rural America. Strong families lose their children to migration and jail because there is no economic opportunity. Thriving communities become desolate sleeping places for transient laborers. Towns are literally taken off the map by the government to squeeze the last breath out of them.

It puzzles me why rural Americans, especially those with livelihoods depend on agriculture, fail to see their Black brethren in our cities as deep historical allies. The hardscrabble lives of poor sharecroppers, tenants, and smallholders — it doesn’t matter their skin color — have been caused and continued by the same elites using the same practices to extract as much wealth as possible from our ranks, before the system breaks.

Three generations ago, patriotic and conservative American agriculturalists rose up to demand an end to their subservience to conglomerates and global markets. They drove their tractors up onto the lawn of the US Capitol and peacefully made pleas for relief. They blockaded the bridges from Mexico from where cheap meat and produce — grown by blatantly exploited laborers — entered the US and decimated farm incomes. They blocked roads, captured court houses, destroyed milk and crops and stood toe to toe with armed agents of the state who saw in them the seeds of insurrection against the system.

Insurrection. American farmers. Armed police response. Cracked skulls. Handcuffs, Jail time. Massive coordinated media campaigns to paint them as derelicts and thugs.

Where, pray tell, are the sons and grandsons of these brave souls now?

I once asked Mary Berry, the daughter of Wendell Berry, why our current generations of farmers did not rise up like their forebears and call out the same system for exploiting their work, for capturing all the value of their production, for killing the American Dream?

She shook her head sadly. “Alan, there’s no one left.”

They came for the farmers first, and America was silent. Cheap food from global corporations grown by the wretched of the Earth in other lands was a fine and hidden trade off. Vast bug-free croplands of corn and soy amazed us. We abandoned our concern for the well-being of rural people, many our own blood. Bumpkins and rubes. Credit, access to markets, and fair prices were something the central government would handle. You fled into cities from rural lands in the South and Mid-West — it didn’t matter your skin color — desperately looking for a new place and a new livelihood.

Then they came for the industrial workers, and America was silent. Cheap goods from destitute developing countries gave everyone a feeling of Moving Up, regardless of the oppression our country supported and perpetrated among overseas regimes. Workers were told they had to compete on price with every low-cost producer on the planet. It didn’t matter their skin color: layoffs, temporary positions, welfare, concessions from broken unions, the new minimum wage economy intentionally built with permanent dependence on a welfare state.

Then they came for information and service workers, and America was silent. If you work, you likely work for a conglomerate that operates in the interest of creating profits for executives and shareholders. Whenever possible, that employer avoids responsibility for the costs of doing business: they underpay, they remove health care benefits, they ravage community services while paying virtually no taxes. Worse, they tax their workers to pay for welfare, medicare, and prisons — and, we are seeing again, the militarized police to enforce the system. The gig economy is the culmination of unbridled grift and theft.

If you are a survivor of this system, still living in rural America and eking out an “independent living” with two jobs, direct government payments, and your farm loss tax write-offs, let me remind you that the protestors in our cities streets are protesting for YOU. It’s one system — it doesn’t matter their skin color — and it affects you just as much as the people being teargassed in the news. Those are YOUR people, forced off the land, their wealth and dignity denied. Those are YOUR people, who will never be allowed to build wealth to support and protect their children. #BlackLivesMatter the same way rural lives matter. You just don’t get shot dead on sight.

If you don’t get that, then Mary’s right: There is no one left. We all stood by while agricultural America was decimated decade after decade. The best of you brought us the great democratic Farmers Alliance of the 1880’s. The depression showed how far we were willing to let you fall to keep ourselves fed. The USDA’s predation since the 1940’s was wrapped in reassurances that we would never miss a meal. Your Tractorcade and the battle on International Bridge in McAllen never even registered in our city brains. Farm Aid let us go about our lives hopeful and ignorant of the destruction of your families’ lives, for the cost of a small donation. And today’s ongoing farm collapse is, we are being told, just a shakeout of the weakest of your lot.

I am deeply sorry for that.

But if you can’t look in the mirror and understand that YOU are why #BlackLivesMatter, then you’re not seeing your own history clearly. What was done to you and your forebears is now being done to everyone else. Yet as an imagined block of constituents, the elites are confident agricultural Americans will not question their practices or motives. You are expected to be complicit in allowing the administration to adopt fascist policies to quell dissent — the same dissent you practice.

The elite are confident rural Americans will not question its practices and motives.

These people in the streets are there for you. And you, yet again, are all that is left to turn the tide. The first to fall shall be the last to rise. You want to get the attention of the system that has choked you for generations? Support #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd.

It’s our time and place in history again. Let’s show up.