The early 1970s were good times for American agriculture, with expanded exports to the Soviet Union creating higher profits for producers, stimulating rural economies and revitalizing farm implement manufacturing. News from the agricultural sector was generally upbeat. Then, on June 30, 1975, Time magazine ran an expose piece entitled “Dirty Grain,” and suddenly Americans-and the rest of the world-discovered that the U.S. was not a reliable supplier of grain.
By the end of that year 256 criminal indictments were handed down for corruption in a scandal involving private sector grain inspectors, grain prices crashed and the farm crisis spiraled out of control. “What did this erosion of our credibility do?” Larry Mitchell, Administrator of the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), asked. “I won’t say the grain scandals were the reason for the farm crisis of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, maybe not even a large reason, but its impact was huge.” In the following decade hundreds of thousands of farms were foreclosed and over a million family farms were lost.
Then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz fought for a federalized system of inspecting grain to reduce possible conflicts of interest, but he was reminded by the White House Budget Office of President Ford’s initiative to reduce overly-burdensome regulations on the private sector.
The following year Congress established the Federal Grain Inspection Service, to federalize grain export inspection and weighing. Domestic inspection would be voluntary.
The grain scandals of the 1970s aren’t just past history, Mitchell told members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka in early January. “It’s not that we want to dwell on the past,” he said, “but we need to understand the past in order to understand where we’re going in the future.”
Though the second smallest agency in the Department of Agriculture, GIPSA is responsible for a variety of programs that facilitate the marketing of livestock, poultry, meat, cereals, oilseeds and related agricultural products, as well as promoting fair and competitive trading practices for the overall benefit of consumers and producers. Mitchell stressed that the grain scandals of the 1970s were symptomatic of larger forces still pushing for the complete eradication of regulations. A careful reading of Dan Morgan’s “Merchants of Grain,” a history of five major grain companies from their inception to the mid-eighties, was not only the best explanation of the scandals but also an indication of where the U.S. might be heading.
The Federal Grains Standard Act, for instance, has been controversial since its beginning. In 2005 when the act came up for reauthorization, many major grain companies lobbied to return to private grain inspections similar to the 1970s, Mitchell said. Farm organizations such as the Kansas Farmers Union rallied to defeat the measure and continue a federal system of grain inspection. Mitchell predicted a similar if not tougher fight when the act is up for reauthorization next year.
When Mitchell was hired to lead the agency, he reread Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” a novel that exposed health violations and abuses of America’s meatpacking industry during the early 1900s. Though the book brought about many necessary changes, including the Packers and Stockyards Act, legislation since then has been contested at every turn. “We still have a long way to go,” he said. “The act is a former remnant of what it was.”
Mitchell also spoke on changes in farming practices and of the constant battle for small producers and farmers to compete with increasingly powerful corporate interests.
“I don’t think agriculture is always asking for special treatment,” Mitchell said, “it’s asking for equal treatment.”
Farmers and producers need to learn to work together for the common good, he said. Unfortunately, agricultural groups often tend to disdain others even when their similarities are more than their differences.
“Too often farmers are crop bigots,” Mitchell said. Beans and corn, the major staples, are prioritized while fruits and vegetables lag behind. Jimmy Carter, for instance, wasn’t known as a farmer, he was referred to by most farmers as a peanut farmer, Mitchell said, “and in farmer jargon that means he was knocked down two or three pegs because of it. I know a lot of crop farmers who think a little less of dairy farmers, and it doesn’t serve us well.”
The basic makeup of American agricultural production encompasses the whole, not the parts, he said.
“This is all of it,” he said. “Half of it is animal agriculture, half of it is crop agriculture. Half of the crop half is the major commodities, the other half of the half is fruit and vegetables-in value. Fruits and vegetables are one-fourth of our food industry regardless if you’re a truck farmer or a peanut farmer.”
Currently there’s a huge demand for local foods, he said, and it’s growing stronger. “Some people want organic, some want natural, but a lot more folks just want something local,” he said. “Maybe that’s the future.”
Mitchell said he’d been to too many agriculture banquets, especially in 70s and 80s-even FFA banquets-where spokesmen would stand up and tell attendees where everything on their plate came from. The beef came from some faraway place and the lettuce equally far or farther, until it seemed everything on the plate was as exotic as kiwi.
“So I added it up and I’m thinking, there’s 7,000 miles of travel on this plate!” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. This is just not efficient. Don’t downplay the impact of locally-grown fruits and vegetables. And we need to expand it to animal agriculture.”
The bottom line, he said, was simple. Know your farmer, know your food.