Jim Hightower

Summer 2002
Will Sugg, Jim Hightower, Heather Spalding, Rusty Sugg. English photo.

In introducing keynote speaker Jim Hightower at last September’s Common Ground Country Fair, MOFGA’s executive director Russ Libby said, “Jim has been out there for the last 25 years talking about agriculture and democracy, and he’s put it into practice. I was sitting with some friends in a meeting in Washington a couple of months ago and we were saying, “How many good commissioners of agriculture have we had in these United States?” And we came up with a few and two of them were Jim, because he got elected twice.” Stew Smith, agriculture commissioner in Maine, was in for two terms, “and then we were having a pretty hard time” naming more. “Massachusetts seems to have figured it out. They’ve had three or four good commissioners. And once in a while you get a little spark of light out in North Dakota, and everybody else seems to have bought into this idea that the way to solve agriculture’s problems is to export, export, export … and export isn’t necessarily the solution to our world’s food problems, and this week kind of points it out more than ever.

“This is a hard time for all of us. We’re all looking for solutions, for ideas. I’d like to think that the path that Jim’s been on, the path that MOFGA’s been on for the last 30 years, is the path that’s going to lead us to the better world we’re all working for.”

Hightower’s Speech

I overheard a lady awhile ago saying, ‘This is like coming home’ and it certainly is for me. Back in 1989, over in Windsor, I spoke, in the mud, to a MOFGA gathering over there, and it’s a special treat for me to return. And what a joy to see these past presidents and board members etc., this high-priced beef that we had showing off here a while ago blue ribbon leaders of this great organization … a joy for me to be a part of this great tradition that you have going here in a fair that is one of the great things that happens not just in Maine but in our country, because what you’re doing is bringing people together. You are the embodiment of democracy here, so it’s a joy for me to join you organic farmers, you gardeners, you eaters and munchers, marketers, cooks and chefs, foodies, just plain folks and corporate butt-kickers who gathered here … on the Common Fair grounds. I gotta say a special thanks to Heather Spalding for the terrific work that she has done. She can’t entirely stand up there. We have a saying in Texas that the rooster crows but the hen delivers the goods. That’s what I think we got right here with Heather. [Heather was quite pregnant during the Fair. She delivered 9 pound, 9-ounce Elizabeth a month later.]

I come here with Susan DeMarco, who’s been my co-conspirator for a number of years. In fact, she was a co-host of our radio show, the Chat ‘n Choo, out of Austin, Texas. She was also the assistant commissioner of agriculture for marketing when I was the Texas agriculture commissioner. It’s been our joy and the genius of pulling a staff together like her to work with good folks like you in Texas, and then all across the country, trying to raise common sense to a fairly high level.

You know, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that common sense is genius with its work clothes on. That’s what is represented here today. Your common sense genius is to see that it’s the ingenuity, the enterprise, the gumption of the ordinary folks in this country that we’ve got to call on to bring out the potential of this great country. Organic is one part of that, but an essential part of it. Organic is not merely about pure food, it’s about an approach to life.

You know, people forget that culture is integral to agriculture. They tend to think of it as just production and just eating. We’re growers and we’re consumers. Yes indeed, agriculture brings us crops, but it also brings us music, which we hear some great versions of over here; the great art that we have here, the crafts that are shown; most importantly, the community and the values that are represented. That’s what I see here at this fair. That’s the common good that we should carry from these fairgrounds, from this Common Ground gathering. Thanks to the vision and leadership of MOFGA and like-minded groups, the organic movement, a democratic movement, is changing the way we think about food, about our environment, about our communities, and about ourselves. Organic sales have gone from a few ex-hippies selling a few turnips out of the back of an old beat-up VW bus kind of held together by bumper stickers, a number of which were my campaign bumper stickers back then, to now an eight billion-dollar-a-year industry growing at about 20% a year. Now this is not the result of your usual advertising and commercial hokum that the monopolistic marketers put forward to try to sell their products. It’s a result of old-fashioned consumer demand. What you’re doing is what people want.

The Guts to Make Change

I was just talking with John Nutting, who’s running for Congress up here, running as a dairy farmer, because that’s what he is, and he helped lead the fight in the state Senate here to get voluntary … BST-labeling (bovine growth hormone) in the dairy industry, and he said he started with one dairy, and the result was the consumers moved to that dairy, and so then another dairy signed up, and then consumers added that, and so it grew not by any artificial means; the bovine growth-free milk products grew because that is what the people of this country want, and you’ve had the guts and the tenacity to make this work. It takes guts! I mean, let’s be honest – not merely to pioneer but to challenge the conventional wisdom, to confront the corporate structure, to crash the bureaucratic barriers.

Woodrow Wilson once said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” Well, all the organic producers and the organic supporters in this country are trying to change is 60 years of ignorance and arrogance that has brought us an industrialized, conglomeritized, globalized, chemically-saturated, corporatized and unsustainable food and agricultural system that runs roughshod not only over family farmers but over our soil, our air and our water; over small business, independent marketers, over food itself, over rural communities and whole countries, whole continents. Our people’s values even are undermined by this kind of unsustainable production. These greedheads that get involved in this, they think they’re the top dogs and the rest of us are just a bunch of fire hydrants out here. But look at the thousands of people who are right here at the Common Ground Fair – They got the fat cats but we got the alley cats, and there are more of us than there are of the fat cats. When we get it together, we get it good.

Susan DeMarco and I have come all this way just simply to say, Keep on keeping on. Keep pushing. George Bernard Shaw, about 100 years ago, said, “You don’t make progress by standing on guard, but instead by attacking and getting well hammered yourself.” Now the fact that I used to be 6′ 5″ will give you some idea of some of the fights that I’ve been in over the years.

But you don’t need an IQ much higher than room temperature to know that the powers that be have been pursuing a path that simply doesn’t work. What we’ve been doing actually down in Washington and in too many state capitals is allowing our food policy to be dictated by lawyers and lobbyists, bureaucrats and economists, people who couldn’t run a watermelon stand if you gave them the melons and had the Highway Patrol flag down the customers for them. Nonetheless, we put them in charge of the food economy. And they operate on a principle that if brute force isn’t working, you’re probably not using enough of it.

So here we are with 8 billion pounds of pesticides doing damage every year, application to food crops, damage to our food, our environment, ourselves, and then they come along and say, well that’s not enough brute force, let’s add genetic engineering to this Kafkaesque stew, let’s tamper with the very DNA of the food supply. Companies like Monsanto and DuPont. And here’s an idea – let’s fool our customers by refusing to label those commodities. I mean, if ignorance is bliss, those people must be ecstatic. Maybe they think we’re not going to find this out. And of course the truth is, people are discovering what is going on.

Then they come forward and say, well, we need more factory farms. Not just a little dairy operation here and there, but huge, controlled, agribusiness operations for hogs, for poultry, for beef. And then they begin to create bizarre diseases, like Mad Cow disease, etc., come out of those factories. No problem, they say, we got an answer for that too, because we got more brute force. Let’s use irradiation of our food to deal with that.

Ag Policies Mug Farmers

Meanwhile, despite these “advances” in agricultural policy, of course the result is the demise of America’s family farmers. And that’s happening all across our land. The television coverage has gone away, the politicians don’t go out and pet farmers on the head any more. But that doesn’t mean that the disaster is not still there. We lose 1,000 family farmers a week in this country. Today.

Now, this is not the case of a gentle passing of an elder whose time has come; this is a mugging! We’re killing the farmers through agricultural policy. Nothing new to this. Let me read you a few quotes here. This is 100 years ago, a farmer talking in a book called The Populist Revolt said, “We went to work and plowed and planted. The rains fell, the sun shone, nature smiled, then we raised the big crop that they told us to, and what came of it? Eight-cent corn, 10-cent oats, 2-cent beef, no price at all for butter and eggs. That’s what came of it. Then the politicians said we suffered from overproduction.” That’s the direct result of agricultural policy.

Ezra Taft Benson, the U.S. secretary of agriculture under Eisenhower, said, “Farmers need the spur of insecurity.” Wouldn’t you like to buy him for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth? Isn’t that astonishing that he would say something like that?

Then we got Uncle Earl Butz, remember him? Under Dick Nixon, of course. “Adapt or die, resist or perish,” he said, “this trend toward less farms is not bad; from a national point of view it’s good that we’ve been able to produce an increasing amount of food with the work of a smaller percentage of our population. This releases people to do something useful in our society.”

Thank you so much, Earl.

Jimmy Carter: “Many of you will not make it, but it will be better for those of you who survive.”

Ronnie Reagan – got both brain cells going. He said, “Farm foreclosures and bankruptcies are part of the necessary solution. My program hasn’t hurt anybody. No one’s been thrown out in the snow to die.”

This is what passes for leadership in agriculture today. Folks whose idea of a good farm program is Hee-Haw, from what I’ve seen. Now they come at us with globalization of the farm economy. NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, Free Trade Area of the Americas. My newsletter’s being circulated around, The Hightower Lowdown. I hope you’ll take a look at this. This is an appropriate issue [that] just came out – “NAFTA Gives the Shafta to North America’s Farmers.” How this has worked against the family farms here and in Mexico and in Canada as well, at the same time has raised food prices in those countries, and the only ones to profit are the middleman corporations.

Well, those in power in Washington and Wall Street are trying to do something abhorrent and rather stupid, and that is take the culture out of agriculture. Economists actually have a technical term for what Wall Street and Washington are doing to us – This technical term is called ‘stealing.’ Faster than a hog eats supper, they’re stealing from us. Remember that old song that Woody Guthrie had back during the Depression: “As through this world I travel, I see lots of funny men. Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen.” It’s the fountain pens who are doing the serious stealings in our society, and we can’t let ’em do it to us in terms of agriculture. These agribusiness interests, they’ve spent 60 years, untold billions of our tax dollars trying to reduce agriculture to agribusiness and turn our food – the very essence of life, society and culture – into nothing but a profit center for global corporate investors.

For the Common Good

We got a saying down in Texas: We say that if you find that you’ve dug yourself down into a hole, the very first thing to do is quit digging. But that’s our problem: The politicians keep trying to dig us deeper and deeper. Course I think our problem is we got too many 5-watt bulbs sitting in 100-watt sockets in a lot of these places. And that’s why we need people like Chellie Pingree and John Nutting and people who are here with us and have been with us over the years.

But we can’t say to them, ‘You go down there and do it for us.’ That’s not how democracy works. We’re the ones that’s got to stop the digging and go another way, the sustainable way, and what we’re really talking about there is return to the concept of the common good. What works for all of us – the notion that we’re all in this together – that’s the organic way. The organic, political notion that we are a whole, as a people. It’s up to us to do that. We can have any kind of food economy we want. One that embodies our values of economic fairness, social justice, equal opportunity for all people, rather than the current ethic of global corporate greed that says, ‘I got mine, chump.’ That’s pretty much what they’re saying to us.

We don’t have to accept that. We’ve got to stand up as what we are – not consumers, not workers, not producers. Yes we’re all those things, but more importantly, we’re citizens of the greatest country in the world, but it only remains great if the people themselves assert those values that embody the democracy that we have, those values of fairness, justice and opportunity for all. This requires us to be willing to challenge the powers that be on behalf of the powers that ought to be – ordinary work-a-day people in this country.

My old Aunt Beulah used to farm up in Northeast Texas, and she said something to me years ago: She said, “Jim, the water won’t ever clear up till we get the hogs out of the creek.” And right there’s our problem, isn’t it? The hogs are in the creek! They’re fouling our economic, political and environmental waters.

I don’t know if you know anything about hogs, but you don’t get a hog out of the creek by saying, “Here hog, here hog, pretty please.” You’ve got to put your shoulders to it and shove the hogs out of the creek. And that means all of us coming together. The powers that be try to divide us, keep us separate. They say to farmers, “Stay away from those labor unions.” And they say to labor, “Your problem is small business people.” And they say to small business, “Beware of those environmentalists, they’re out to ruin you.” Well, hogwash and horse hockey to all that. We’re not enemies, we’re natural allies. As Jessie Jackson used to say, “We might not all have come over on the same boat, but we’re in the same boat now.” That’s a powerful political reality.

So we have got to put our shoulders together and push on that hog that is in the creek muddying our waters and in the process usurping our people’s democracy. It really comes down to this fundamental question that’s been asked over the eons by people who aspire to democracy. And that question is, “Who the hell is going to be in charge? We the people, or a handful of global greedheads?” And we’re at another one of those ‘When in the course of human events’ moments in this country when we’ve got to ask that question; when we’ve got to forcefully ask it, and we’ve got to be asking it even more after last week’s horrific bombing and the equally horrific return that we’re getting out of some of our leaders in Washington, D.C. We’ve got to assert ourselves as a people, as a democracy, because there’s nothing guaranteed about it.

I’ll leave you with this thought, because it kind of sums up where I think we are in this country, and by the way, I think we’re in great shape. You don’t hear about it on the media much, the politicians don’t want to talk about it, but all across America there are great people just like you righting back against this corporate usurpation in the workplace, in the marketplace, in the food economy, in all aspects of our lives. Just about every place that’s got a zip code has somebody, some group, standing up and saying ‘No’ to the corporate usurpation, and putting a positive program together. That’s the beauty of what’s represented here. You’re not just saying ‘No’ to what we’ve been given, you’re saying ‘Yes’ to what it can be, what is possible. And that power, we don’t have to create a progressive movement, it’s already out there all across America. What we’ve got to do is connect it up; for you to know here in Maine, in Portland, Maine, there are people in Portland, Oregon, who are fighting the exact same battles that you are fighting. And we’ve got to link those movements up together.

There’s a moving company in my town of Austin, Texas, that has an advertising slogan that I have usurped for my own use. This moving company – in fact they’ve got an ad in the yellow pages – it says, “If we can get it loose, we can move it.” That’s what I’m talking about doing: Get it loose at the grassroots level, and the people will move it for themselves.

Questions and Answers

After his talk, Hightower thanked the Gulf of Maine bookstore for having his books available at the Fair (the most recent is If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates) and encouraged fairgoers to “always support your independent bookstore.”

When asked to comment about The New Chataqua that was going on in conjunction with the Common Ground Fair, Hightower said that this traveling event will have its formal kick-off in January. More information is available at www.jimhightower.com.

Asked to comment on the World Trade Center bombing and what lies ahead, he said: “I wish I could be more optimistic about this, but we are faced with mad-man and Bush-man, I’m afraid, in dealings with this. I think that this is a time when real patriots have got to stand up in this country, because as you have seen in the last week, there is a massive assault not merely on our buildings but on the very structure of our democracy. The Congress is shaming itself, abandoning its responsibility to actually declare war, letting Bush in effect declare war. It is giving him 20 billion dollars in discretional money for him to spend however he wants. It is creating this new Offtce of Homeland Security. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make me feel much more secure than I was before this. It is unleashing the CIA, they say. I don’t remember when it was leashed, exactly, but it’s going to unleash the CIA. It’s going to allow more wiretapping, more surveillance of your Internet exchanges and emails. It is going to allow more profiling of our citizens. It is going to allow assassinations by our government – a formal part of our policy. It is allowing the demise of protests. There already are efforts to say ‘No, no, you can’t rise up.’

The good news is, however, that the people are rebelling against this too. They’re sorting it out. Right now it’s a minority, but it’s going to grow as people realize there’s something more fundamental at stake here and we’ve got to do this the right way. Not undermine our freedoms in the name of protecting our freedoms. That is the struggle that I think we face today … I’ll just add one quick point to that: That is, luckily, we have an important leader in this movement, and that’s the young people of our country. They are on the move. One hundred forty-six campuses, peace demonstrations two days ago. Follow the kids. They know where they’re going.”

Asked where people can get truthful information about what’s going on, Hightower praised community radio and public radio, community newspapers, and recommended his Hightower Lowdown as well as the Internet. “You’ve got to go look for this news … You’ve got to be an aggressive citizen. It’s out there. Dig it out.”

A fairgoer asked about his comment that when the stock market goes down, people do better. “My actual reference to it was that when people do poorly, the stock market goes up. It gloats and cheers. That has happened with company after company, whenever they have a massive downsizing of its employees – downsizing being an euphemism for ‘You’re fired’ – the impact of that company’s stock is to go up, and that’s not by accident, because CEOs of major corporations have their compensation package attached to the price of the stock. They actually have a financial incentive to off the employees, to cut corners on environmentalism, on community responsibilities, and etc., because it jacks up the price of the stock.

“So the notion that we have this free market magic out there that makes everything work is nonsense. To begin with, a magician doesn’t perform magic. A magician performs an illusion. And it takes an illusion to think that because stock prices are going up, America is prospering. You can talk to working people, right here at the Common Ground Fair, they will tell you, we hear this talk all the time that we’re creating all these new jobs. You know, Bill Clinton used to say, “I’ve created 23 million new jobs,” and a waitress will say, “Yeah, I know, I’ve got three of them.” It’s not jobs we’re missing, it’s income. Eighty percent of the people have seen their incomes go flat or go down during the last decade, a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, yet most people’s income went down. That’s why Wall Street is not an indicator of America’s economic health, much less of our overall democratic citizenship.”

Asked what actions “real patriots” can take in response to September 11th, Hightower answered: “I recommend the simplest action, and that is, talk to people, talk to your family, talk to the people in your church, talk to people in the workplace, talk to folks in the grocery store line. I heard a comment last night at The New Chataqua meeting here, I guess it was Richard Grossman who said some campus had … a symposium with Renquist, I think it was, [students] were saying, ‘Bomb ’em, bomb ’em, bomb ’em,’ and then this lady stood up who was from Northern Ireland, who had just moved to this country to get away from the dangers in Ireland … and she finally stood up and said, ‘Violence begets more violence, and we’re going to be killing innocent people, and do you really want that?’ And then the room stood up and cheered her. So it’s possible to have these conversations.

“Right now we have a one-way conversation with the media and the politicians offering a single vision. There is an alternative truth to what is being put out, and we have got to assert that. It’s not going to come from the mass media; it’s not going to come from big-time politicians. It’s going to come from us. I saw somebody here with a peace button saying ‘Peace starts with me.’ That’s where I would start. One, get information about what’s going on, secondly, just talk to people. America needs conversation right now, really badly.”

Asked about his strategy for the next four years and possible ways around the sideshow of the two-party system, Hightower said, “My strategy is to run my mouth, basically … and to try to encourage this citizen uprising and unity among the progressive movements that are already out there, as I indicated. But there is a way around the sideshow of the two-party system. One is insurgency within the Democratic party – people like Chellie Pingree and Nutting and others in this country who are within that party and are proudly attached to the Populist principles and constituencies that made this party what it is. The other way I come to it as an old-time Democrat out of Texas – I was elected two times in Texas as a Democrat; they’re still laughing about it down there, but nonetheless, there I was asserting those Populist principles. But those of you who aren’t comfortable, being there, there is the Green Party, there’s the Working Families Party, there’s the New Party, there’s the Labor Party, there are progressive alternatives for you. All that I say to you is, don’t be mad at each other. Don’t be mad at somebody ’cause they’re more comfortable being in the Democratic Party or somebody’s more comfortable being in the Green Party. We’ll all get together later and decide what to call it. Let’s just right now get together and take progressive action, get behind politicians who stand for us, no matter what party that they’re in. That’s got to be the key. If they stand for us, then we can stand for them.”

On what, Hightower was asked, did he base his notion that Congress was part of the effort to stifle protest? “To begin with, it’s not legislation that I know of right now, rather it is the climate that they are creating, including lusty cheering by members of both parties when George Bush two nights ago proposed the Office of Homeland Security be imposed on us, and the implication of all of this effort being that this is not a time for any division. And the Congress itself, including Democrats, stepping back and saying, Well, we can’t even argue with the President on this, even on something like Star Wars. Yesterday the U.S. Senate approved money for Star Wars with the support of the Democrats, because, they said, we can’t oppose this missile defense shield in this time of crisis, even though of course this had nothing to do with what happened to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and, in fact, a friend of mine suggested we might better do a box cover shield than a missile defense shield … but whatever. Insanity rules at this moment. There’s a compulsion to do something, even if it is something stupid. I see this effort in terms of dampening … it’s not legislative … but … it can become legislative if we don’t stand up.”

A fairgoer said that one thing we can do is assert ourselves in terms of our own lives and what we do, including how we spend our money. “Perfect for this gathering,” said Hightower. “My mama once said; “Don’t ever put anything in your mouth unless you know where it came from.” Well, you can’t do that in big supermarkets these days, unless there’s an organic section. But you can do it if you buy locally, if you buy as directly as you possibly can, and if you buy organic. So yes, we’ve got to stand up in every aspect of our lives, not just political, but also in something very fundamental, such as where our dinner comes from.”

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