Festering U.S. Farm Crisis Impinges on Jews, Cities

Tens of thousands of American farms are dying each year, taking with them the farm equipment manufacturer, the auto worker who makes farm trucks and the small food-supplier.

The chain is long, reaching into the life of the urban dweller.

“It’s not just farmers. They take an economy with them, ” said Jim Hightower, Texas commissioner of agriculture and keynote speaker at “Judaism and the Land: Responding to the Rural Crisis.” a conference held at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion here Sunday.

The conference was sponsored by 14 separate Jewish organizations, including the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the American Jewish Committee and members of several congregations spanning all movements in American Jewry, along with representatives of farmers’ advocacy groups.

Hightower denied government and media reports that the farm crisis is over. “The good news for American farmers in 1988 is that the farm crisis has officially been declared ‘over’ by the Reagan administration. The bad news is that their good news is a lie.”

The Texas agriculture official said that 235,000 farmers have been “squeezed out of agriculture as a result of the price-busting, surplus-generating 1985 farm bill, and it is going to offer mighty cold comfort to the 130,000 other farmers who are forecast to go under in 1988.”

He emphasized the negative impact of the farm crisis on non-farming Americans, including 55,000 factory workers laid off their jobs since 1981 as a result of the work lost with the demise of numerous farms.

Hightower recommended “a supply management concept” in which farmers are informed of the expected demand of crops so they do not over-plant, a government-enforced price floor and a one-time overall 4 percent price rise of farm products.

ATTEMPTED CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING

Conference coordinator Frank Hornstein of Queens, N.Y., food and farm policy consultant for the UAHC, said, “What we are trying to do is raise urban Jewish consciousness about the important issues related to the rural problem and how it affects urban people.”

Rabbi A. James Rudin, national director of interreligious affairs for AJCommittee, stressed in his opening address Judaism’s inextricable links to agriculture. “The Hebrew Bible is the world’s oldest agricultural textbook,” replete with agricultural themes, and three major Jewish holidays — Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot — are harvest festivals, he said.

Living in “dank quarters” in the diaspora, “unable to even buy land, much less farm it, the Jews still pored over every agricultural reference in the Bible and Talmud,” he said. This yearning culminated in Zionism, whose belief was that spiritual redemption was possible through “avodah” (work), forging a link between physical labor on the land and the worship of God.

He said most Jews appreciate the efforts of maintaining a farm and “understand the economic unpredictability and the psychological and physical stress created by the constantly shifting global agricultural markets.” Thus, he continued, Jews “instinctively know that when a once stable and productive segment of our society begins to break apart, then the entire American society is put at risk.”

Rudin stressed that Jews and non-Jews must forge coalitions to alleviate the plight of American farmers.

COALITIONS IN KANSAS CITY

He was echoed by David Goldstein, executive director of the Kansas City Jewish Community Relations Board, which nearly three years ago established a farm crisis desk. It is run by Carol Smith, a non-Jew whose parents lost their farm, and is funded by Women’s American ORT.

The board is concerned about farmers for a simple reason, said Goldstein: because the farm crisis has begotten anti-Semitism from right-wing extremists looking to blame someone for the farmers’ woes.

“It’s in our own self-interest. There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.

Goldstein drew parallels between Jews and farmers in the United States. Both groups number about six million, he said.

Just as Jews “have crazy stereotypes, so do they,” said Goldstein.

Jews should be able to understand farmers’ fears as they lose their way of life. “A culture is being destroyed. They are trying to maintain a way of life. It means to them what Jewishness means to us,” he said.

The Jewish Vocational Service of Kansas City, said Goldstein, established a program with Women’s American ORT and the Kansas Department of Agriculture in which out-of-work farmers are retrained and assisted in finding news jobs.

ORT also has collected clothing and appliances for needy farmers.

New links between farmers and Jews have paid off in unexpected ways, Goldstein said. Farm leaders have adopted Soviet Jewish refuseniks, he said, and two farm leaders accompanied the Kansas City delegation to Washington for the Dec. 6 Freedom Sunday rally for Soviet Jews.

Goldstein, as well as farm and Christian groups’ representatives, asked that letters be sent to members of Congress asking for emergency assistance to needy farmers and a moratorium on farm foreclosures.

Remedies for farmers’ dire problems of producing income-generating produce could be found in a program undertaken last year by the Texas-Israel Exchange (TIE).

With funding from the Jewish National Fund, and expertise from Israel agriculture experts on site now in Laredo, Texas, a “blueprint farm of the future” with diversified crops and direct marketing, is operating, proving that farming can be lucrative and successful in the United States.

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