Luverne Schmidt, an Iowa farmer for more than 50 years, knows that farming is more than just making a living. It is a way of life.
"Agriculture is about being close to God," says Schmidt, a member of Immanuel Reformed UCC in Klemme, Iowa. "Each spring we can feel the newness of God, the seedlings, the newborn livestock. Each season reminds us of the stages of life."
But Schmidt, who farmed for 28 years with his father and has continued for 22 more years with his sons, knows that global economic injustice now threatens his family's agricultural tradition. He says that something must be done to protect the institution of the family farm.
On Aug. 18-23, a delegation of nearly 20 UCC farmers from across the United States and the Philippines gathered at St. Peter's UCC in Geneva, Iowa, to worship together, to visit farms, and to share personal stories about the difficulties faced by small family farmers.
Then, on Aug. 24-25, they traveled to Omaha, Neb., with church leaders, academicians, and activists to share their experiences and to learn more about the impact of economic globalization on the agriculture industry.
Participants included two conference ministers: The Rev. Gene Miller of South Dakota and the Rev. Jean Alexander of Maine.
The Consultation on the Small Family Farm and the Global Economy was sponsored by the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries. The Rev. Wallace Ryan Kuroiwa, economic justice team leader and the son of an Hawaiian tenant farmer, organized the consultation to examine the farm crisis from a global perspective.
Family farms threatened
Participants discussed a range of complex issues, including crop prices, global trade, food standards, access to land and water, U.S. domestic policies, the environment, world hunger and the mounting structural debt owed by poorer nations like the Philippines.
Many were deeply concerned about the skyrocketing rate of suicide among American farmers—a traumatic result of the farm crisis that, several participants said, has been largely ignored.
"What farmers face in America and the Philippines is the same thing," said Anuradha Mittal, a policy analyst from Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, Calif.
"We are made to believe that they are taking away each other's business but that is a lie," Mittal said. "The truth is we now have a corporate concentration of the food system, which is basically a system geared toward putting the family farmer out of business, both at home and abroad."
"We are led to believe that the government is sending all this money to help rural America and the family farmer," Mittal said. "But that money doesn't go to the farmers, it goes to support large corporations and agri-businesses."
A theological issue
Ben Malayang III, a member of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, agreed.
"The liberalization of trade policies is not only affecting agriculture in the Philippines, it is affecting our entire economy," said Malayang. "We are becoming a more reliant economy rather than being a producing economy."
Malayang added that global trade policies now require his country to import rice even though it is one of his nation's main agricultural crops.
"We are witnessing the disappearance of a way of life and we are witnessing how the small family farmer is struggling against a system that is powerful," said the Rev. Norman Jackson, a former conference minister and the theological interpreter for the consultation. "This is a justice issue. This is a theological issue."
According to Mittal, the average age of the American farmer is 53 years old. Fifty percent are over 55 years old, while only eight percent are under the age of 35.
"Who is going to feed this country?" she asked. "Farmers are the most cherished inheritants of knowledge and experience, passed from generation to generation."
The consultation will continue in February 2002, when participants from the United States will visit their counterparts in the Philippines.
The UCC's Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry is producing a video documentary on the farm crisis and the global economy that will be aired on national network television.
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess is Minister for communication and mission education for Justice and Witness Ministries in the UCC's national setting.