Farmers from America's heartland representing a broad spectrum of commodity production in the US are visiting with their West African counterparts this week in Mali. The tour, sponsored by international agency Oxfam America, will give the farmers the opportunity to show solidarity with struggling farmers around the world and to get a first hand look at how US agricultural policies affect the lives of developing country farmers.
The trip, timed with a fast approaching make -or-break deadline in the Doha Round of negotiations at the WTO, is the first such effort by Oxfam. The participants, wheat, cotton, dairy, corn, sheep and cattle farmers from Texas, Illinois, Kansas, Virginia, and Vermont will be meeting with producer organizations, farmers in cotton producing areas, US government representatives and Malian government representatives.
"The benefits from reforming trade rules and U.S. agricultural policies could flow both to impoverished African economies and to U.S. farms," said Jim French, a rancher from Reno County, Kansas and an organizer with Oxfam America. "Upon returning from this educational journey, I hope that we will have opportunities to communicate our experiences to a broader American audience and to our legislators."
Most of the farmers became involved with Oxfam America's efforts when the organization brought West African farmers and economic experts to tour several states in the US in May and November of last year and earlier this year. Leo Tammi, a commercial sheep producer in Mount Sidney, Virginia, hosted Malian cotton farmer Seydou Coulibaly for a farm tour and farm fresh mutton dinner back in April.
"Malian farmers are very efficient, but US farm policies are taking a toll over there," said Tammi.
Current US agriculture policies encourage overproduction of commodity crops, such as rice, cotton and soybeans, with the surplus dumped on international markets at prices well below the cost of production. This dumping undermines local production, threatens the livelihood of millions of farmers and deprives developing countries of earnings and market share.
"African and American farmers suffer from the same problem: low commodity prices," said Ken Gallaway, a third-generation, medium-scale cotton and corn farmer from near Lubbock, Texas. "If we all received decent prices for the goods we produce we wouldn't even need a farm subsidy program."
Oxfam America is campaigning to reform unfair international trade rules, including agricultural subsidies is the US. This tour comes at a crucial point in time as the current Doha talks in the WTO continue, and as the U.S Congress looks to authorize a new Farm Bill in 2007.
The American farmers traveling to West Africa know the effects of agricultural subsidies on US farmers a little too well. Through subsidies, taxpayers actually provide the funds that enable the biggest producers to drive land prices up, which makes it difficult for family farmers to afford to stay in business, and nearly impossible for a farmer who is just starting out to afford land to farm. Current commodity payments end up in the hands of less than a third of American farmers.
"Who can best survive in this kind of environment? It's the guy who gets the most land, the biggest equipment, who can buy his inputs at the cheapest cost," said Charlie Melander, a wheat farmer from Salina, Kansas. "We have become in this country, fascinated with bigness. You've got to be big. We've got to be bigger."