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Katie Danko: Is the US Killing African Farmers?

Is the US Killing African Farmers?

By Katie Danko
Conscious Choice
March 2007 | Thought for Food

Terry Steinhour and his wife Phyllis farm about 650 acres in Springfield, Illinois, the heart of corn-producing country. The Steinhours’ are well-respected in their central Illinois community, and Terry is active with his church and the Illinois Farm Bureau. During the last six months, Terry has also been involved and vocal about reforming US farm policy. “It should address the needs of family farmers, not industrial-sized farms,” he said.

In July of 2006, Terry’s views on US farm policy began to broaden when he went to West Africa with Oxfam America, an international development agency. Terry traveled with four other farmers to Senegal and Mali and met with African farmers and public officials to discuss the impact American farm policies have on the rest of the world. They all delivered the same message: “Do something about your country’s farm subsidies…they’re killing us!”

“We were all stunned by what we experienced,” he said. In one of the numerous newspaper clippings about his trip in the Lincoln Courier is a striking picture of Terry with local residents of a Malian village eating rice and meat with his bare hands from a communal bowl of food.

“I had only been aware of African society from TV or in the news,” Terry said. “The poverty was so extreme and widespread.” The experience was life changing, especially the new knowledge that farm communities around the world are affected by the decisions of U.S. policymakers.

Another stunning fact is that one fifth of the world’s population — over one billion people — live on less than a dollar a day. A great majority of these people live in rural areas and are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Because of unfair trade practices, the world’s poorest families find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty.

It’s shocking that the average European cow receives more in government subsidies every day than half the world’s population earns in wages. Propped up by government subsidies, American and European farmers unload cheap goods on the world market at a cost often far below the price of production, leaving farmers in the developing world, not to mention the majority of American family farmers, unable to sell, much less compete.

In 2005, the US spent close to $24 billion on agricultural subsidies, most directed to large-scale corporate-owned farming operations like Monsanto, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).

Terry Steinhour also receives government subsidies. “I don’t like receiving them,” he says, “but yes, I cash the checks.” For Terry and other Midwestern farmers, subsidies are a matter of survival. “I would much rather receive a fair price for what I produce on my farm and eliminate the need for the check from Uncle Sam,” he explained.

Terry said many Central Illinois corn growers only make a small profit or experience a net loss on their farms. “I can’t think of anyone that doesn’t have off-the-farm income to make it by. There’s got to be some sort of safety net for US farmers but the current system makes farmers overproduce, which pushes prices down. I got lucky this year with the ethanol boom but who knows if it will last.”

Before the price of corn increased due to demand for corn-based ethanol, Terry was making a small profit for every acre of corn he grew. Terry is now afraid prices are artificially high and the demand for corn won’t last very long.

“US Farm policy promotes overproduction of the commodity farm, which has effects on the third world and on the American diet, says Michael Pollan, journalist and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “The price of fast food and meat has gone down while the price of fruit and vegetables has gone up. What does that tell us? Current farm policy has little support for local agriculture and local foods.”

On a hot day in the village of Dafara in the West African nation of Mali, an entire community, in a well-prepared presentation, explained to Terry and his travel companions that US farm policy is decreasing their cotton prices. One villager stood up and said, “The only thing we know is to work hard. Is there something you can do with your government so I can get something out of what I do?”

It was hard at first for Terry to relate his plight with that of Seydou Ouedraogo, a cotton farmer from Burkina Faso, who hopes to someday live at the poverty line, instead of far below it. Speaking to him, Terry began to understand the effect subsidized farming has on countries — and people — throughout the world. Like Terry, Seydou provides for his family through his land. Like most farmers in the region, he engages in a mix of subsistence farming for his family and cotton for a cash crop, which he grows on about 10 acres of land. Unlike Terry, Seydou does not receive any subsidies.

Cotton is by far the largest commodity crop in West Africa. After the costs for seed and fertilizer, there is not much left for anything else. Twenty cents per pound of cotton is Seydou’s dream price and last year, he received 17.5 cents per pound. However, projections are much lower this year and Seydou expects to receive only 10 cents per pound. With the US spending up to $4 billion dollars annually to subsidize American cotton farmers to produce more than the market demands, Seydou’s dream price remains a fantasy.

“How do you reach out and help those less fortunate?” Terry asks. “I’m going to continue working with Oxfam to change US farm policy. It’s the only option to help third-world countries.”

Negotiations will soon begin on the 2007 Farm Bill, the five-year legislation that governs US food and farm policy. Terry and others will join the efforts of Oxfam America to mobilize people and lobby key members of Congress to significantly reduce the subsidies that encourage overproduction and redirect those resources to programs that will help small businesses and non-commodity organic farmers, build rural infrastructure and create conservation programs that encourage farmers to better care for the environment.

Terry plans to take his experience on the road. He has pledged to talk to people wherever he can find an audience about the abject plight of the West African farmers and the far-reaching consequences of the US Farm Bill, which many voters may know little about.

“The Farm Bill has been the playground of people in the farm states,” Michael Pollan continued. “But it’s not just a ‘farm bill,’ it’s a food bill.” This legislation encompasses nutrition and food programs across the US and literally determines what Americans eat. Pollan said more people are now interested in changing farm and food policy because of concerns about obesity, diabetes and the situation of poor people, both here and in developing countries. Even the involvement of an international organization such as Oxfam in a food and farm debate is exciting, according to Pollan.

Terry agrees that the 2007 Farm Bill provides great potential for unity. “Groups from different backgrounds including farmers, faith communities and city dwellers are beginning to realize that this touches the lives of many people around the globe and the time has come to promote a better Farm Bill and a better world.”


Katie Danko is the Midwest Field Organizer for Oxfam America and works primarily on Oxfam’s campaign to reform the 2007 Farm Bill. She has a background in grassroots community organizing around a variety of issues including public housing, clean water, clean air and federal farm policy.

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