The 1970s and 80s were a tumultuous time for many U.S. family farmers. After President Nixon ended the dollar’s convertibility to gold in 1971 to curb inflation, commodities from grains to oil soared in price. USDA Secretary Earl Butz sold off U.S. grain reserves and advised farmers to plant from ‘fencerow to fencerow’, which many did. Farmers were also emboldened to take on more debt to acquire new and bigger farm implements, updated cropping systems, and more land during the years of high grain prices, but scarcity became oversupply, profits disappeared, and farmers realized that the New Deal farm program had been destroyed.
As banks and other lenders demanded repayment for their expansive lines of credit, many farmers planted more hay fields and pastures to sell more grain to compensate for the low prices they received. The American Farm Bureau and trade groups, such as the American Soybean Association, finally acknowledged this disaster when plummeting land and machinery prices created a banking crisis. At that point tens of thousands of farmers faced foreclosure and felt they had no alternative but to sell their farms — which meant losing their homes, livelihoods, and standing in their communities — to get out of debt. Many joined one or both of the tractorcades organized by American Agriculture Movement during the winters of 1978 and 1979, traveling hundreds or thousands of miles by tractors at a speed of roughly 15 miles per hour to Washington, DC. They sought support for 100 percent of parity — a price floor based on a crop’s cost of production — and a moratorium on foreclosures. With but a few champions there, foreclosures, auctions and suicides escalated throughout farm country.
Meanwhile, grassroots activists had been organizing in their home states to help farmers, their families, and their communities manage this crisis. When the federal government offered virtually no hope or support, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and dozens of musician friends held a day-long concert called Farm Aid on September 22, 1985, in Champaign, Illinois, to call attention to the farm crisis and raise funds for farmers in crisis.
Members of the North American Farm Alliance — a farmer protest organization that advocated a return to Roosevelt’s New Deal farm policies — determined that an organization representing family farmers and ranchers was needed in Washington, DC, to amplify their concerns and change federal farm policy. In January 1986, with Farm Aid’s support and encouragement, a number of grassroots advocacy organizations, including the American Agriculture Movement, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Land Loss Prevention Project, Missouri Rural Crisis, Northern Plains Resource Council, and more, established the National Save the Family Farm Coalition, dba National Family Farm Coalition, or NFFC.
These leaders also agreed that NFFC should be established as a coalition of advocacy organizations, not of individual members. NFFC would be stronger with an existing base of organizations, some with hundreds or thousands of individual members working from different states toward common goals at the federal level. It would also be easier to organize events and outreach for developing policy recommendations that NFFC would represent to Congress and the administration.
The NFFC was built on two main tenets: raising crop prices in the marketplace to parity to promote family farm agriculture while eliminating the tax burden of deficiency-payment subsidies; and encouraging sound environmental farming practices, in part through a ‘bushel-based’ supply management program. These commonsense approaches, which would have kept farmers afloat and from planting every square inch of bare ground in order to stay afloat, were not so common among government leaders. Although farmers have historically been reticent to ask for government assistance, their outreach in the late 70s and early 80s went largely unanswered, amplifying the need for their message to be heard more often in face-to-face meetings by people with influence.
In September 1986, Farm Aid sponsored the United Farmers and Ranchers Congress in St. Louis where 2,600 representatives, elected at hundreds of grassroots meetings throughout the country, met for three days to craft and affirm resolutions based on parity to counter President Reagan’s policies; the American Farm Bureau Federation did not participate. In 1987, the Harkin-Gephardt Farm Bill (aka the Family Farm Act of 1987), which reflected many of these resolutions, nearly passed in Congress but was defeated by influence from trade group lobbyists, some of whom had held USDA positions under President Reagan.
Grassroots organizing proved successful when NFFC, led by the unparalleled political organizer Kathy Ozer, helped to draft and pass the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987. This monumental legislation, sponsored by Rep. E. de la Garza of Texas, included several provisions to assist farmers nearing foreclosure on their farms. Farmers won borrowers rights as well as opportunities for debt restructuring and mediation. To help farmers repay their lenders the Farm Credit system borrowed $1.26 billion in the form of government guaranteed loans, which were repaid — with interest — ahead of schedule. Ultimately, 70,000 farmers were saved from foreclosure, which would not have happened without an engaged, dedicated and thoughtful group of leaders working together.
By 1990, NFFC had 42 member organizations based in more than 30 states, and a third tenet—addressing the serious loss of land ownership and discrimination experienced by Black farmers—had been added. NFFC, whose efforts were again led by then-policy director Kathy Ozer, worked with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Land Loss Prevention Project, Rural Coalition and others to draft and pass the Minority Farmers Rights Act of 1990. This important legislation materialized as the Section 2501 Program for Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers in the 1992 farm bill, and has been funded in every farm bill hereafter.
Over the years, NFFC members, staff and allies have collaboratively drafted legislative proposals, organized congressional hearings and conference panels, and circulated farmer research and writings to lift up the experience and demands of family farmers, ranchers, and fishermen to the public, the media, and government representatives to improve farm, food, and trade policy domestically and internationally. From joining La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement advancing food sovereignty; helping to derail the Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations; exposing the farmland grabs of pension fund manager TIAA-CREF; facilitating the denial of Monsanto’s release of genetically engineered wheat; and introducing the concept of InterDependence between family farmers/ranchers/fishermen, workers, and eaters, NFFC has steadfastly stood by, for, and with family-based food providers and rural communities with integrity and dedication. As long as these efforts are necessary, NFFC intends to keep fighting.