Texas Populism Project

Rally to Save Family Farms

Doug Zabel grew up on a farm in the Midwest and was a political consultant and campaign manager before he went to work with the Texas Department of Agriculture.  He became closely involved with the development of the National Farm Bill of 1985.

“My dad had this little community bank that was based almost entirely on farmers. In ’81, the farm economy basically collapsed in the Midwest. It was a little later coming down here to Texas. Farm land prices dropped by 40%.  Farmers were overproducing.  They had big surpluses of corn, soybeans, wheat. So, it was clear we were gonna need a new farm program or some major adjustments.”

Agricultural economics, it is generally agreed, is one of the most arcane and convoluted pieces of governmental policy.  If you ever have the misfortune to experience insomnia, my recommendation is to peruse a dusty book on agricultural policy.  It comes with a guarantee to provide a instant, although mildly troubled, sleep.   

Roosevelt’s New Deal was the first to venture into the quagmire of restructuring the farm economy. The New Deal set up a variety of policies that included supply management and price supports.  Every decade and every administration since then has added a new layer of tinkering.  Since the 50s, Farm Bill gets reauthorized every five years. And every five years there is a fundamental battle between the supporters of family farming and the advocates of technology and agri-business, corporate farming.  The USDA, the Farm Bureau, and the Chemical Lobby and agribusiness line up for the latter.

It was Zabel’s TDA assignment to shephard the process for the 85 Farm Bill. “In 1984. Hightower became the chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s Agriculture Council, which, in the past, was basically responsible for raising some money from big Agri- Industry for the Party. But I took it seriously and…we put together a series of hearings all around the country and invited farmers to come discuss the problems.  We were in the heart of the farm crisis by then. And so, we  talked to farmers, all over the country and then I basically sat down with some of them and came up with a commodity program.”

Most businesses have some sort of way of managing their supply to match the demand.  Most businesses except agriculture. Agriculture needs some sort of government help.  Voluntary controls, mandatory controls, price supports, outright subsidies, price targets.  The list is endless.  Well, not endless but too long for a short blogpost.  The Farm Bill supported by the TDA offered a democratic and participatory way of managing supply.

Zabel thought the proposed 1985 Farm Bill would solve a lot of problems.  “it would have involved a referendum by the various farmers growing the various crops. And if they approved it, we would set a production quota basically that intended to match the anticipated demand. So you didn’t end up with surpluses piled on the ground.  That sort of thing had been discussed before.  But we threw in a little twist in which the smaller farmers would be required to set aside slightly less of their land. And the bigger guys with have to set aside a little more, and that was sort of slanted toward small farmers.  

Essentially, the way it was set up was there would be a guaranteed floor for your crop. And so if you produce that, then you would get that amount for making your quota. If you happen to produce more than your quota, then you would store the overage and it would be applied against your quota the next year to keep things in balance.”

It seemed so simple and straightforward and fair, but there was a lot of opposition.

President Ronald Reagan signs Farm Bill H.R. 2100 Photo courtesy of President Ronald Reagan Library.

“It was the chemical industry and the big grain traders like Cargill Continental Grain that made their living off of shipping a lot of grain, corn, wheat, soybeans. Their margin maybe wasn’t that high but the more they shipped, the more they processed, the more they made, so they fought it tooth and nail.  The chemical companies, of course, didn’t want this.  It would have resulted in cutting back on chemicals by, in some cases, 30 to 35%, due to set asides. And that was in good times when the crops were good.

The American Ag movement and Farmers Union and a bunch of other commodity groups got behind the bill and and made a major push.   It came up one vote short in the house Ag Committee because the Reagan administration bought off Kiki de la Garza, our South Texas Congressman who was chairman of the Committee.

I still look back now and think if we had passed the bill that rural America would look a whole lot different now.   A lot of those small towns would still be around and a lot of the ones that are around would be doing a whole lot better. “

PHIT New Project

Hightower Campaign Poster

  The Hightower Years

Farms on Fire

The Texas Camelot

PHIT is beginning a new oral history project.  The project title is still a work in progress, but the subject matter is pretty solid.  We are collecting participant stories on the impact that the Texas Department of Agriculture made on state and national policies during the years that Jim Hightower was Commissioner.  Those years were 1983-1991.

Jim Hightower, Ann Richards, Jim Mattox, and Garry Mauro victorious

The 1980s was the high-water mark for progressive politics in the state of Texas.  In 1983, Ann Richards, Garry Mauro, Jim Mattox and Jim Hightower, all politically progressive, were elected to state-wide office.  In a glorious moment of celebration, the four them walked arm and arm up Congress Avenue to get inaugurated.

In the years since, Ann Richards has been the subject of a biography.  Molly Ivins is celebrated in a play.  Mauro and Mattox ran more prestigious agencies and received more subsequent press attention.

Hightower was elected to two terms of office at the Texas Department of Agriculture.  In those eight years, Hightower, and an amazing team of activists and policy analysts that he recruited and enabled, created a legacy of agricultural achievements that created models the pattern for the rest of the country.    

Yet his legacy has been mostly neglected and his successors at the TDA have virtually written Hightower and his achievements out of history.

PHIT has begun an oral history project to recover that history.  And an incredible history it is.  This, my friends, is the PHIT mission statement.  To collect and preserve and to tell the story of the neglected and under-represented segments of Texas history.

Willie Nelson and Jim Hightower

Hightower came into office in the midst of the most severe agricultural credit crisis since the Great Depression.  The family farm and the family ranch was facing extinction.  

Reagan, the Farm Bureau, the United States Department of Agriculture all were working avidly and gleefully to increase the average size of the farm in order to make it more “efficient and productive.”  And they were more than willing to sacrifice the family farm for massive exports and cheap cattle.

The Texas TDA became the focal point of opposition to that strategy.  The Texas TDA battled the Farm Bureau, battled the USDA, battled the Reagan-Bush administration.

The mission statement of the Texas TDA was to create an agricultural environment that would be safe for the consumer, safe for the farmworker, safe for the earth and would permit the family farmer and rancher an opportunity to make a profit.

In response to the death of farmworkers due to pesticide exposure, the TDA established the nation’s first pesticide application regulations.

The TDA created the first official state organic produce regulations and produced the first official organic certification stamp.  The federal government was forced to respond to this initiative by creating its own national standards.

The TDA battled the Department of Energy when it wanted to create a nuclear dump site in Deaf Smith County, the most valuable agricultural land in Texas.

Taste of Texas

The TDA helped Texas farmers diversify by creating effective marketing.  They supported the fledging wine industry with professional marketing and championed local herbs and local flower industry.  They helped promote a Christmas tree industry, helped develop a Texas blueberry industry, an export mushroom operation.  Texas produced zero pinto beans until the TDA helped a panhandle farmer start marketing them.

They helped create coop farms, spread farmer’s markets throughout Texas.

They advocated for national farm bills to control production and guarantee fair prices for farmers.

The fledging wind industry was hatched in the TDA halls.

The list could go  on.

PHIT is currently conducting oral interviews to collect the TDA participant stories.  In this Blog, we will present highlights of those interviews.

Eventually, we will begin work on a documentary.

Documentaries cost money

So save your pennies and nickels, because PHIT will, by the end of this year, set up a Gofund me site, and we will be asking for donations and selling coffee mugs, and T-shirts, and maybe even some of the lovely and quirky Texas craft souvenirs that TDA sponsored in the good old days.