“Have you killed and also taken possession of the land? You have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” These are the words Elijah the prophet spoke as he pronounced God’s sentence upon King Ahab of Israel and his infamous wife Jezebel.
The royal couple cast their covetous eyes upon the vineyard of Naboth, a poor peasant farmer, and refused to take no for an answer. When Naboth rejected all efforts to buy his land, Ahab and Jezebel had him disposed of in a heinous act of treachery and murder.
Elijah came in response to speak a powerful truth to the royal family: The lives of poor farmers like Naboth matter to God. He will not let them be forgotten.
In our age of globalization, the poor farmers of the world are more likely to suffer injustice as a result of trade decisions made thousands of miles away than from villains like Jezebel next door. Nevertheless, all these generations later, the Naboths of the world continue to need courageous people to stand up and proclaim their lives matter to God.
Congress is beginning debate on the 2007 Farm Bill, a massive piece of legislation with tentacles reaching far and wide. In the balance are billions of dollars in government programs annually over the next five years.
Also at stake is the face of rural America over the next decade, and perhaps the very survival of tens of millions of farmers worldwide. As people of faith, we have a biblical mandate to educate ourselves about the scope of this legislation and advocate for a globally just Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill’s roots go back to the Great Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt laid out a radical government program designed to protect American farmers from market instability.
Commodity payments, subsidies to farmers for growing certain crops, were proposed as a temporary solution to help farmers make it through the hard times. But commodity payments did not end with the Depression. Instead they have grown steadily over the decades. Today the government spends $20 billion in commodity payments every year.
Unfortunately, the lion’s share of commodity payments no longer go to small, family farms, but rather to large, commercial farms. In fact, the largest 6 percent of U.S. farm operations receive almost half of the payments. Some of these operations receive millions of dollars each year.
As mega-farms gain greater economies of scale they price out smaller outfits. Every year more family farms are put under, and land which has been in the hands of families for generations is gobbled up. This drives up tax rates, putting smaller farmers at an even worse disadvantage. The cycle is vicious.
Not only is the Farm Bill policy helping fewer and fewer American farmers, it is devastating farmers in the developing world.
The current commodity payment system encourages U.S. farmers to produce five main crops–corn, cotton, rice, soybeans, and wheat–and in fact to produce much more than our domestic market demands.
The world market is flooded with these crops, which are sold at prices lower than what it costs to produce them. Third World farmers simply cannot compete with the artificially low prices of our crops.
At the end of the day, poor farmers in developing countries earn starvation wages–some as low as a $1 or $2 a day.
There is no justice in a system that rewards the affluent and injures the vulnerable. The Farm Bill should serve people who need help the most: farmers struggling to get by, dwindling rural communities and hungry people everywhere.
This year we have a chance to change the system. Substantive Farm Bill reform is needed, starting with commodity payments.
We must work toward a market where farmers worldwide can reap a just price for what they sow.
We need a more equitable safety net that works better for small and moderate-sized U.S. farms. That safety net must also apply to farmers who grow broccoli or apples, giving Americans more access to healthy and affordable foods.
Phasing out the current system of commodity payments would free up resources to help people struggling to get by in today’s rural America. We need a farm bill that helps generate jobs, strengthens small businesses and supports entrepreneurs. Investing in infrastructure such as broadband Internet access and better telecommunications could open doors that never existed in rural communities.
It is possible to create a Farm Bill that is better for farmers, better for rural America and better for hungry and poor people everywhere.
A host of humanitarian organizations are calling for change. Among these voices is Bread for the World, a Christian movement against hunger. Bread for the World members are doing what Christians have been doing for two millennia. They are taking up an offering.
Only this is a different kind of offering. They are asking not for money, but for voices. Bread for the World is asking people of faith to offer to God the gift of their U.S. citizenship by writing letters to their members of Congress, urging them to support broad reform of the farm bill. You can learn who to write, what to say, and how to say it at www.bread.org.
The time to act is now. I urge you and your church to join me and my church in sending an offering of letters to Congress. We can carry on the work of Elijah and the other prophets, and ensure that when the final version of the 2007 Farm Bill is passed the Naboths of our world will not be forgotten.
Ryon Price is pastor of the United Church of Colchester, an American Baptist church in Colchester, Vt. His blog is here.