In the chorus of voices defending the family farm, Rhonda Perry’s rings out loud and clear. Born and raised on a Missouri farm, Rhonda returned to the land after completing her education to confront the powerful interests that threaten the social, economic and environmental fabric of rural America. With her husband Roger Allison, she runs a grain and livestock farm in central Missouri. Rhonda is also program director of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, a grassroots organization of 5,500 farm and rural families struggling to survive the onslaught of giant agribusiness.
In Missouri and across the nation, family farmers are hard pressed to compete with large corporations that seek to control the pork industry. Giant agribusinesses leverage their access to capital and political power to run huge factory farms, evading environmental regulations and manipulating the prices that determine farmers’ livelihoods. As a result, independent farmers are forced off the farm, local businesses close their doors and the rural economy shrivels.
Rhonda Perry has organized at the local and national level to champion the family farmer and combat the despoliation wrought by factory farming. She helped found the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, a multi-state challenge to corporate control of the hog industry. Bridging urban-rural and black-white divides, she has created coalitions with environmentalists, unions, consumers and churches.
When one large corporation began building a factory hog farm in an economically-depressed Northwest Missouri community – a facility that would generate as much as waste as a city of 1.5 million people – farmers and rural families demanded that the company post a bond to protect groundwater from pollution and sought a mile-wide buffer between their homes and the company’s 25-million gallon lagoons of untreated waste. When the company rejected both demands and sued, MRCC organized grassroots opposition. One event drew 3,000 people to a protest rally bringing together Farm Aid’s Willie Nelson, civil rights leaders, environmentalists, union organizers, Native Americans and farmers who had lost their land. The company withdrew its demand for monetary damages.
In a direct challenge to the compulsory fee levied on every hog sold in the country by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) – a pro-corporate trade group- family farmers organized a nationwide petition drive to force the US Department of Agriculture to release them from paying the tax. In an attempt to stop the drive, the NPPC hired a firm to investigate Rhonda and MRCC. Defying all odds, Rhonda led the petition drive and the “Vote No” campaign in Missouri to a stunning success. When the vote was held late in the Clinton Administration, family farmers won, with Missouri voting down the tax by the largest percentage of any state. In a shocking turnabout, however, the Bush Administration threw out the farmers’ vote. Rhonda and the MRCC are now suing the USDA to uphold the vote and terminate the tax.
Through MRCC, Rhonda has brought 2,500 poor families from 25 counties into monthly food cooperatives. She and MRCC also founded Patchwork Family Farms, a cooperative that helps farmers get a fair price for their pork by working together to market their products through grocery stores, restaurants, and community barbeques in central Missouri and inner-city churches in St. Louis and Kansas City. Patchwork is a successful alternative to corporate farming, demonstrating that sustainable hog production by family farms is economically, socially and environmentally viable.