A network of farmers from throughout the world working together to build economic power is an interesting alternative to the rivalry and competitiveness we now see among farmers of different counties.

Farmers around the world have at least one thing in common: they must deal with multinational firms to sell their products and buy many of their inputs. "Growth and competition in agribusiness are not restricted to any one country," says Dick Levins, economist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service. "We continue to think of large grain companies and other large multinational corporations as U.S. corporations, but their home base is the world, not any single country."

"Farmers continue to identify themselves as being from one country or another, and to see their principal competition as coming from other countries," Levins says in a recent paper presented at Grain World 2002 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "I am especially saddened to see the animosity between farmers in my own country and in Canada.

"And the rivalry between farmers in the U.S. and those in South America over soybean exports is another example of a process that will eventually destroy both. Farmers, in my view, should see themselves primarily as farmers when they are conducting business matters and find other ways to honor their countries of origin."

"We might write off the prospect of a global farmer network that builds economic power rather than global competition that reduces power as a dream," says Levins. "But I'm encouraged that my recent articles on collective bargaining have found a wide audience among farmers. And the alternative of an agriculture serving nothing more than being efficient and cheap has failed to support rural economies."

Rural policies that rely on agriculture as an economic and social foundation must be realistic about how many farmers it will take to provide a healthy environment, create a solid economic foundation for rural economies and produce the food we all need, Levins says. "We must recognize that our experiment in having relatively few farmers producing relatively cheap commodities cannot be judged a success if measured by the health and prosperity of our rural areas," he adds.

In looking for a new vision for rural development, Levins says he found himself looking back. "The old vision, one in which agriculture provides the primary source of wealth in rural areas, is one I still find appealing. But for it to work, that wealth must remain in rural areas and not be drained off by distant enterprises that have superior market power," Levins says.

"The rural development that I envision will be led by farmers, many more than we have now, and acting together in ways that allow them to protect the rural areas in which they live. We must put less emphasis on the 'hook them up to the Internet' school of rural prosperity, and more on capturing the value generated from the vast agricultural resources of our countryside."