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Jim Hightower

INTERVIEWEE: Jim Hightower (JH)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: April 9, 2002
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Chris Flores and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2171 and 2172

Please note that videos include as much as 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s April 9th the year 2002 and we are in Austin Texas and we have the good fortune today to be interviewing Jim Hightower who’s made many contributions to the sustainable agriculture in the state and also to opening the political system to many who formerly haven’t had a good voice. And I wanted to thank you for taking the time to…
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JH: Thank you, David. Glad to.
DT: …talk to us. Appreciate it. I thought we might start by asking if you could tell us a little bit about you’re family background maybe some of your early days and—and in particularly if there was somebody in your—in your family or a—a—a friend who—who might have introduced you to the outdoors and to sustainable agriculture. Perhaps you could tell us something about that.
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JH: Sure I – I grew up in Denison, Texas, a little town due north of Dallas right on the Oklahoma border. We considered ourselves the first line of defense against the “Okies” there and I was raised in a small business family. My mother and father both had come off of tenant farms which is kind of what that area was at that time in the 1950’s period. It’s largely tenant farmers around there main street merchants. Denison was a railroad town the Katy Railroad.
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So a lot of workers truck drivers merchants farmers– those are kind of the folks that I grew up with; later learned that that they were Populist; that that – that there had rather than being particularly liberal or conservative. They actually had this classic Texas anti-establishment maverick streak in them. And so that’s where my politics came from–was experiencing the reality of – of ordinary folks battling the powers that be. My own father and mother having to contend with the bankers to get a loan; going hat in hand down there to do that; contend then as the chain stores grew larger. They couldn’t deal locally
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anymore they had to send forms in triplicate to—to Dallas and then the banks began to move out of the city and out of the State. So the—the battles that they had these are people who would call themselves conservative yet if you talked about the – the power of the banks to squeeze them, the power of the oil companies in the Texas Legislature, the power of the lobbyists in Washington D.C., you scratched very progressive people–sort of William Jennings Bryant people. And I realized early on without putting words to it, that the real political spectrum is not right to left. That’s theory that actually divides us. Rather the real spectrum is top to bottom. That’s where folks actually live. That’s the experience that they’re having and—and I have learned in my political years and my writings and radio work and travels that the vast majority of people in this country are no longer in shouting distance of the powers at the top, no matter what those powers call themselves: liberal or conservative. And that that these are the work-a-day people of the country and these are the folks that have very progressive instincts within them. they are not the height-bound
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xenophobic conservatives that we are taught that they are. And if we develop a politics that appeals directly to their ideals, their idealism as well as their interests, then we’ve got a very progressive possibility in this country– progressive possibility economically socially and environmentally. Now in my upbringing, we didn’t call it “environment” didn’t – didn’t know that word. But it was right on Lake Texoma, the Red River, I spent most of my boyhood just running up and down the creeks around that area and you know finding out about wildlife; seeing my first owl and first rattlesnake; and playing with the terrapins and horn toads and you know and all that sort of stuff, and just having a rather idyllic boyhood.
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And for my parents just going out and playing in the – in the area or—or out in the – in the woods, was a rather normal thing. They didn’t worry about it send me out and there we were. . And then I also spent a lot of time on my Aunt’s and Uncle’s farms up around Ector, Texas – Bonham, where my Uncle Earnest. Aunt Eulla had a little farm. They were tenant farmers also but had a very s—successful farm; small operation–fifty acres raising cotton and a little bit of corn and had a dairy cow, and you know a pig and some chickens. and you know a big garden and the regular thing. Then I had a great-uncle down at Weatherford who was my father’s uncle and he was
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what we called a truck farmer; basically raised a little bit of watermelon and chickens and veggies and stuff and would go into the farmer’s market in Weatherford Texas with my uncle Ben Fletcher and sell there. And it was a delight for me as a child. This farmer’s market was just a phenomena. It was so bright and so colorful and the smells were so good and the people were so happy and – and, in both of these cases, these were farmers who mostly didn’t use chemicals. Not because they wouldn’t have, but because basically that’s not what they did. They were small operators. They could do it by hand and that was the virtue of small operations: you can tend more to – to each plant when—when they’re small without the use of heavy hardware– nuking the plants ,
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chemicalizing the plants, poisoning the Earth and water and their—their own bodies. So I at the time didn’t know anything about that – about pesticides and industrialized agriculture – because I was in the midst of, you know, old-time family farm agriculture. And that was instructive to me later on in my writings in my work in Washington and then as a—as Ag Commissioner here in the State of Texas when I kept hearing the Ag Economist tell us “Well, we can’t do it without this arsenal of chemicals. You know, if you want to decide which fifty percent of the people in the world are going to starve, then
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you can go organic. You know. But otherwise you can’t produce that food.” Well, I remember that farmer’s market in Weatherford, Texas, and there was a cornucopia of food– you know beautiful food, delicious food. People were well fed, even- even people like my relatives who didn’t have much money; they—they still ate well. And I thought “Well, somehow or other they managed to do it (inaudible) you know. Maybe they were just stupid, you know, and hadn’t figured it out; but it seemed to me that there was another way and that if we focused on those farmers rather than on the Earl Butt’s vision of “get big an—or get out; plant it fence row to fence row; put everything on an export market;” if we just dealt with the—really the two ends of the food economy: the
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producers and the consumers , that then we would have an agricultural policy that was quite different than the agri-business vision in which the money basically is siphoned off by those in the middle – increasingly a handful of global conglomerates, monopolistic conglomerates, that squeeze the farmer and then overcharge the consumers and sell to the highest bidder so poor people around the world don’t get the food that is available to them Instead of having an indigenous agriculture that is much more locally-based everywhere around the world and making your investments not in huge corporations but your investments in the extraordinary ability of ordinary folks to—to be creative in, not
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only of production of food, but in the business of food and – and in other businesses as well. Have a localized economy based not on the trickle-down economic theory but on percolate up. That if you invest at the ground level, then that’s going to generate wealth that will be much more widely shared in the community, in the Nation, and—and around the world. So my—my—my later practices and beliefs came from basically my upbringing in – in that little town of Denison.
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DT: Oh that’s very helpful. Can—can you explain a little bit of how you put some of your—your new beliefs and awarenesses into practice when you went to Washington D.C. to work for [Senator Ralph] Yarborough’s office?
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JH: Well, initially I went to Washington to be a law student, and lasted a week and a half in law school, and decided that was not going to be my career. And, but had a part-time job at the Library of Congress in the Congressional Research Service, and so learned to do research which was extraordinary opportunity. I was very lucky to stumble into that. And – and to be helped by the people there to learn how to dig into what was going on. And by then I had been to College– graduated from what is now the University of North Texas, and had there discovered that what my beliefs were, were not
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anything new, but were a continuation of the Populist Movement that actually began just west of where we’re sitting out in Lampasas, Texas. Four farmers sitting around a kitchen table in the late 1860’s, deciding that they were going broke and that they had to do something; that the railroads and banks were ripping them off ; the prices of their commodities were dirt cheap; and the cost of what they were having to buy to produce those commodities continued to go up; and they were being squeezed out of business; and that neither political party was doing anything about it; and they had to do something for themselves. So around that kitchen table sprang a movement that was the most successful, grass-roots
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people’s movement in our country — literally changed the politics of both political parties before they were through, and contrary to the historical perception of it that we get in – in colleges, was actually a – was a movement not just of farmers crazed about the silver standard or the gold standard. Indeed by the time that William Jennings Bryant gave his Cross of Gold speech, the Populist Movement had—had already crested and—but it was a movement that had its own Co-operatives; financed farmers; and provided needs for
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farmers. It was tied into the cities. It was the first. They created their own political party, the People’s Party, and they were the first party to advocate Women’s suffrage; the first to advocate wage and hour laws for labor; the first to—to advocate direct election of Senators rather than the Legislatures choosing the Senators, which they used to do. So they had a very progressive, very broad agenda, and they never won a Presidency but
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they won Governorships; they elected majorities of State Legislatures; they – they changed the politics of – of this country of both political parties through their efforts. So a—again, my point being that it’s a—a small group of people can make huge changes in our Society, but you’ve got to have a long-term strategy to it. Too often today, our progressive side wants to focus on the next Presidential election rather than who’s going
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to be elected State Rep, who’s going to be the County Commissioner. These are offices we can win, and the offices that are then the building blocks for a real political movement that can actually elect a progressive President eight years twelve years sixteen years down the road. But that kind of strategic outlook is what’s got to be developed and what the Populists showed us is that it never comes from top down. You’ve really got to build your base and—and h—have that be the source of the power within your movement. No matter what you want to do: whether you want to deal with environmental issues, you want to deal with the demise of the family farm, you want to cope with a runaway corporations, unbridled corporate power, et cetera – all of that still has got to be grounded in a grass-roots movement.
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Fred Harrison I later worked for in Washington. He was a Senator from Oklahoma, was Democratic Party Chair, too. Fred ran for President, and I was his National Campaign Coordinator in – in 1976; made Fred what he is today: a Professor in Albuquerque! And Fred used to say, “You can’t have a mass movement without the masses.” and that’s the truth. We—we’ve got to get back to that and not be afraid of the masses. Too many progressives, too many environmentalists think, “Oh well, the people are very conservative. and – and they’re—they’re corporate-minded and they’re—they’re—they’re not going to go along with this.” So we keep trying to fool the people or sneak
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around them or something, when in fact if you go to them , you’re—you’re going to have just a wealth of support. I believe for example that there is an environmental majority in this country. They don’t call themselves that, but this is a majority that is made up as much of people who are members of Sam’s Club as they are Sierra Club members. They are the folks who may know more about the PTA than the EPA. But they do know when they’re being poisoned. They do know when their children are endangered. And when they sense that
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this is a very volatile environmental movement that springs spontaneously out of these people. I think the most powerful environmental groups are not the Sierra Club and Audubon and NRDC and the—the various acronyms based in Washington, but groups like SOS and OUCH and one in Utah called UH. I mean, the Spontaneous Combustion Groups I call them, that get fired up because something had happened to them, or they discovered some realities of – of what is going on.
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And these are farmers who learn that that the you know the chemicals that they are using can turn against them and cause cancer. There’s higher rates of cancer in many rural areas farm areas than there are anywhere else in the country. They are people who work in those chemical plants down on the Texas Gulf Coast who know that their lives now are going to be ten years shorter than it would be if they’d worked somewhere else. At the same time, the company is trying to take away their healthcare benefits and their
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pensions! These are middle-class suburbanites, who live way out in the far out suburbs up against the cotton fields; who know that the – notice that the rose bush died this year about the same time that the cat—neighbor’s cat died last year, and wondering if that has something to do with the rash that the kids are getting and—and et cetera. These are very powerful environmental political forces within our country that needs to, I think, be the basis of our of our environmental movement because that’s the majority. And these people don’t want mealy-mouthed, don’t rock the boat, get what you can
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compromises in legislation in Washington the way just about both political parties play the environmental issue up there. Rather, they want their water to be clean; they want their air to be clean; they want their food to be clean, period. And they don’t want a lot of excuses about, you know, the economics of it and et cetera because of course you know they—at—at some level they know that that’s “b.s..” That that is not a trade off of economics for having clean air, clean water, clean food, clean babies, clean health.
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Rather it should be the priority of our country and we build our economy around that. And again that gets back to the food issue. My experience in agriculture is that indeed organic agriculture even, you know, much less sustainable but pure organic agriculture, is more cost efficient for farmers than is the chemical, industrialized agriculture. And you know, I, in my studies and work in Washington, I was there ten years before coming back to Texas in the mid-‘70s and—and becoming Editor of the Texas Observer here and began to write about these kinds of issues. And—so I knew this intellectually , but then
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when I made the only downward career move you can make in journalism – which is to go into politics – left the Observer ,and ran for ran for office, and in 1982 won as Texas Agriculture Commissioner and served two terms there, deciding to put into practice my Populist instincts and the environmental lessons and the—and the economic perspective that that I brought into office. And what we found is that people , and particularly farmers, were eager to find new ways of producing, because they were indeed worried about what was happening to them and
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their families and their neighbors. And they knew that there was there were poisons in their water supply. And they had a closer identification with these poisons than, you know, most environmentalists in cities do, because they were dealing with them everyday. But as one farmer told me. “Hightower, I agree. We—we’re using way too many chemicals, but I don’t know how to farm any other way.” Because they go to college at A&M or Tech or San Angelo or wherever else (inaudible) in our—in our Ag
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schools, and – and until recently those were chemical schools. And then they go to farm and then—and they—they know what kind of chemicals they’re supposed to use on what. And what they don’t know, you’ve got the Ag Extension Service out there – their—their local agents – saying, “Oh yeah. Here’s—here’s your chemical list. You know you can choose among this menu of a—assorted chemicals for your cotton or sorghum or, you
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know, whatever. And then you’ve got your Banker saying, “Well, here’s your chemical schedule. You’ll put this chemical on at this time and that chemical on at that time”, and it’s printed out. And then the farmer says. “Well no I—I thi—I think I’d rather not do that or I’d rather use less chemicals or I want to do sustainable or I want to get—I want to be really crazy,” (you know like you just dressed up in a pink tutu or something) “You know and I—I want to—I want to do some organic farming.” “Well” they say. “Well fine, boy, but you know you’re not getting a loan from us.” So the whole system is geared to the chemicalization and the industrialization of agriculture. They’re always saying, “You know you need to buy your neighbor’s farm or get a lease on some other land and expand. You need to get some new machinery. You need to go heavier into debt, you know , et cetera.” And say you need to shift your
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production, g—get away from those little things ,and put it all into cotton or all into wheat and cattle – meaning you’re stuck on a global commodity market over which you have no control and you got a purchasers the people you are going to sell to you don’t have competition you don’t have Cargill sitting there with a grain elevator and ConAgra with one next door to it and ADM [Archer Daniels Midland] with one next door to it saying, “Come here. We’ve got a nickel here better for you or we’ve got a dime better.” They don’t compete like that. And increasingly, they’re all owned by one outfit and they don’t even have elevators in the same County with each other. So you’re taking what you’re given by those companies. So you’re being asked to use these heavy inputs that are poisoning your land
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and your water and your family these heavy inputs that are putting you heavily into debt and then to get a price that is based on th—the—really th—he whims and the manipulation of the, what are called oligopolies, the monopoly buyers of your commodities who then turn into oligopolies: monopolistic sellers of those commodities to us consumers. So they’ve got a squeeze in the marketplace right in the middle. You know so you’ve got a lot of farmers producing for few buyers and then few buyers, few sellers selling to a lot of—of customers. So that’s the power right there. And they
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control agriculture policy. And they want huge plots of land; they want the lowest possible cost of that commodity that they can get, so they want huge plots of land with a lot of chemical use on it and generating huge volumes. That huge volume results in farmer’s getting a low price because they say, “Oh well, the market’s saturated, so you know your—your cotton’s going to be thirty cents a pound, you know, when it’s costing you seventy-five cents to make it.” So ah so—so they have that power to direct not only the economics of agriculture but also the – the environmental aspects of agriculture.
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DT: Well as—as Ag Commissioner did you feel like you had adequate power and jurisdiction to offer some alternatives?
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JH: Wel,l that’s what we had the ability to do was to be a catalyst for change. We couldn’t make the change nor would you want any entity – government or corporate -though as I say corporations now are the—the force determining how we produce our food, what it costs, what food we get, et cetera. But we were a little agency here in Texas but had pesticide authority, regulation of pesticides. We had a lot of marketing authority.
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We had some economic development possibilities that we increased working with the legislature to get some new tools, and then what we did was to see ourselves as the—as the catalyst of enterprise the—in free market, free enterprise. The free is not an adjective. It’s a verb. You’ve got to free up the enterprise of people. And so what we offered to farmers starting mostly with smaller farmers because they were more amenable to—to ideas was information instruction on sustainable practices markets. We would help them
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get in the door of places they could not now even talk to the buyers of from major supermarkets like Kroger which was one of our first successes. To farmer’s markets selling directly to consumers, to the international market taking very small operators, producers of honey even and taking them into Dubai and Kuwait and places like that as well as Japan and Mexico and South America and in Europe. Marketing these commodities directly, so that the farmer would get more of the value out of it and then helping the farmer to make adjustments to – to safer and more cost-effective techniques that range from sustainable practices to organic. And you’ve got to remember that
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organic is not—people say organic well that’s just you—you don’t use chemicals well that’s the least of it. You don’t use chemicals but what you do is build your soil and modern agriculture agri-business has gotten away from the notion that agriculture culture is the important side of that and the soil is a culture it’s alive and if you c—constantly poison it, yeah you’re killing the—the bug that might eat your cotton plant, but you’re killing the other microorganisms that are in there and beneficial bugs along the way and ultimately you’re killing the soil itself. It’s got to have those microorganisms that’s the life that is in the soil. And so organic means slowly building that soil back up so that it’s got a productive capacity again. And we—we used a f—fellow out in west Texas in Gaines County way
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west Texas and he was a—a sizeable corn farmer and had six hundred acres of corn and other commodities that he raised as well. And he came to use because he had been farming the conventional way; graduated out of Texas Tech; went back took over the family farm; began to apply the chemicals and et cetera. And this was in the mid 1980s early to mid and that was a farm crisis time. Still is. The TV cameras don’t cover it today but the farm crisis still there. Back then they were covering it; so we had tractorcades and farmers going broke and he was penciling it out at his kitchen table and said, “I’m going broke. You know my—and then he felt bad as he you know my—my Daddy survived the drought of the 1950s on this farm; my Granddaddy survived the Depression; and I’m going to lose the farm you know?” So that’s a very personal and hard—hard thing for a family to—to absorb. So he began to kind of fidget around and figure wha—
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you know what else can I do? You know what could I be doing? And he came across some material on sustainable agricultural practices, and like farmers do, they experiment all the time. They’re in their kitchen or out in their shed. They’re trying to figure this or that out you know and it—it may be a new tool it might be a new way of plowing they listen to other farmers and—and they—they—they look for an edge even in the good times they’re looking for an edge. Well these were bad times. And so he—he began to
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call people around the country. Well what’s this stuff you know? And – and can that really work? And—and then what he ultimately did was to begin to he—he quit the chemicals . They were costing him a bundle; it’s d—extraordinarily costly to buy the chemicals and then to apply them. And he decided he was going to quit it and he was going to raise corn organically. And he went and got some of that manure that’s piled
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up there in the feed lots. You know, so much manure that they can’t know what to do with it. So uh so began to take it and plow it into his soil and everybody laughed at him. You know the—the County agents scoffed at him at the café. “Well there’s old, you know, there’s old Mr. Organic you know.” And sure enough, his first year his yield was cut in half; his corn yield was cut in half. But—but he understood that was going to happen and he kept at it. And in the second year his yield was only a—a fourth less than
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it had—had been. And then the third year his yield was twenty-five percent higher than it had been before and it was costing him way less money and he was getting a premium price and organic price on the corn. So he turned his farm around in a—in a three year period.
Now what was going on there was the soil was building up. The soil had to gain tilth , the—the essence of which is to sustain the plants so you got strong plants. It’s got the microorganisms and nutrients in there so the plant itself is absorbing more nutrients so you got a better product. More fruit and and then and—and—and so you’re—you’re—the culture side of agriculture begins to take over and we forget that the we—we’ve
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forgotten that lesson that my uncle Ben Fletcher knew. I think that agriculture is this the art and science of Co-operating with nature, not of overwhelming nature. And that’s what’s gone wrong in agriculture we tried to you know if – if brute force isn’t working, you’re probably not using enough of it is—is their attitude, you know, instead of saying Well, how can I get this plant to do what it naturally wants to do only more so?” and – and that’s what organic is. And that’s a—that’s a smart y—y—you have to be smart to farm that way. You can’t just say, “All right boys, you know, let’s go out there and spray that sucker, you know; or let’s get the big machinery out.” You got to know what you’re doing. And you—when when the—when the bugs come in you got to know something
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about beneficial insects and how you deal with that. There’s a lot of knowledge that is involved in it and unfortunately most farmers have lost that knowledge because it wasn’t being taught. Now we’re beginning to see the transition again for—for—for private groups and – and private schools and now more in our state schools there is a—a more of an okay. There’s something here alright we’ll—we’ll get into this sustainable practices in agriculture. So the transformation is coming from the industrialized, chemicalized, conglomerated
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agriculture to uh the sustainable local economy form of production. And it’s coming for two reasons: one, consumers want it; this is what the market is saying but the powers in our agriculture policy area those who—who—who are the middle man those who make the chemicals sell the machinery who own the seeds and patent the seeds and manipulate the seeds are the ones who make policy in Washington and most State Capitals. Those powers don’t see the change coming and they’re dead set against that change coming, but it’s coming because the customers are saying we want food that is clean. And that means
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we want the least amount of chemicals in; it we don’t want it genetically altered; we don’t want it overly processed; we want a good what’s called a pure-food system. And by customers I mean Republicans living in North Dallas. This is what they want, because they don’t want putting poison in there babies’ mouths. This is why markets like Whole Foods and- and Central Market here in—in Austin and Wheatsville Co-op and—and the- the pure food markets all around Texas and all around the country are the fastest growing markets that there are in the food industry, because people with money are in there looking for that kind of a product.
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Our other customers: Europe, Japan, increasingly South America, are saying “Hey, we want that pure food, too. We don’t want the Monsanto genetically-altered seeds. We don’t want the heavy pesticide residues, and et cetera. We want clean food. So the market is shouting at us and the farmers are ready to respond to this because it makes more sense for them. But you’ve got to change the infrastructure – that upon which agriculture operates – so that we make that clean food our priority. And then we invest in
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the farmers so that they can make the transition from what they—from what is now a conventional agriculture to what should be conventional, which is getting back to that notion that agriculture farming is the art and science of co-operating with nature.
DT: Well it seemed like when you were TDA Commissioner you—you did a lot to open markets and—and educate people about the incentives to go towards the sustainable and organic agriculture. I wonder if you could also talk about some of the efforts that you made to make people aware of some of the dangers of conventional agriculture? I—I—I think that you set up a pretty sophisticated pesticide regulatory program and you also did some groundwater monitoring that I think was pretty alarming in some of the results you found. Could you mention some of that work?
DW: And—and—and also the comb—in combination of how do you achieve that in a state that has the largest petrochemical industry residing not but a few hundred miles away?
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JH: Yeah, Texas is a state that is awash in chemicals. We’re the number one pesticide user. And surpassing California which is almost you know you—you think of as toxic in its—its huge agri-business areas. And we are the number one chemical producer pesticide manufacturers, and there is a lot of money riding on all of that; a lot of banks invested in it; a lot of corporate investors into the status quo which, as one farmer told me, “Status quo is Latin for the mess we’re in.” Uh. And so it’s it’s not easy m—
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making the break. But you have to trust in the common sense of ordinary folks that if you show them something real, they will look at it and they will absorb it and that is happening. As as consumers become more concerned about what’s in their food and air and water, people in the cities as farmers themselves become more concerned about what am I doing to my land and my water and my family and my neighbors and my workers. I had more than one farmer come to me and say, ” I—I had a farmer get sick and – and I’m—I’m just not going to do that you know I—I’m not going to do that to people” and was looking for help how—how can I get—get off of this. So that created something that
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you can’t create artificially; that created a political climate that allowed changes to be put forth in a serious way and to be received seriously. And so as Ag Commissioner, I was the Chief Pesticide Regulator of—of the State. And so we did put forth some new pesticide standards one set that would protect farm workers more than they had been (which was almost nil).
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I mean we were doing basic stuff like: Here’s a list of chemicals that with a time table that once they’re applied you can’t let anybody go into the field until a certain amount of time. And the farm workers have a right to know what you’re putting there and what the medical response to a poisoning would be. And so we were working with doctors of the
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medical profession, county health officers and that sort of thing, working with farmers, working with farm workers, working with environmentalists. And then another set of regulations was geared to people who live up against the fields who because of the—the way pesticides are applied in a State as windy as ours either by air or by a tractor spraying there’s a lot of drift. And you may be saying, “Well, I’m just going to get my -my cotton sprayed here but right over there you know the—the veggie garden is—is getting the pesticide and the cat’s getting it and the dog’s getting it and maybe the kids out in the yard; the grass is getting it ;the rose bush is getting it” and so so that was a real problem almost leading to a territorial war, you know, like it used to be
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in the old cowboy movies of the cattlemen versus the sheep guys, you know. So so we proposed regulations of notification of neighbors; the rights of neighbors to know what’s—what’s being sprayed, and what they should do, and that the very least that they could shut their windows or you know leave the house for awhile. I mean that’s—that’s not the answer ultimately but I mean that’s how how—how basic the situation was because none of that was in place. So we proposed these regulations. We also then used our b—because we had natural resource responsibilities for soil rural water and this sort
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of thing, then we began to do some monitoring of what was going on, and then I also had oversight over pesticide spills and contamination by pesticide companies and that sort of thing, so we began to get seriously into this. So—so we became you know a—an environmental advocate with farmers and with farm workers and with rural people as well as city people making that coalition central to our effort. You can’t just come from a city and say to a farmer, “No chemicals. Thank you very much. Goodbye.” You got to bring them into it. And then in addition we – Susan DeMarco was our Assistant
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Commissioner for Marketing And Development, and she assembled just a phenomenal staff from all over who could, who could open up these markets and develop co-operatives of these farmers and move their – their new commodities like blueberries and wine grapes that were just starting at the time; the specialty vegetables for high-dollar restaurants, organic production and et cetera that could move that product, because it’s no good to say to a farmer, “All right, we—you know you—you—you’re losing money
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making cotton, so why don’t you raise apples” unless you’ve got a market for the apples, because there’s a whole investment and knowledge and everything that’s got to go into making that switch. So we—we worked—we started with markets. With, for example, I mentioned Kroger stores earlier. In Houston, they were the dominant supermarket and – and we had a bunch of farmers raising watermelons – in this case African-American farmers over in east Texas right outside of Houston; Hempstead, Texas, made a wonderful melon – just delicious – and, but they couldn’t get in those markets you know? And s—and so they
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were selling on the side of the road getting what they could for their melons. And so [Susan] DeMarco and her marketing staff in to meet the executives at Kroger and said, “We got better watermelons right up you know two Counties away from where you are than you’re now bringing in from Georgia and California and places like that and melons that would be cheaper for you. And these melons would sell.” This was our pitch out before those other melons were even touched, because Texans have a chauvinistic feeling about our State. And so, sure enough, to pretty much to get us out of the office they sold—
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bought a load of watermelons from this Co-op. And sure enough that whole bin of watermelons sold out. And then we had a promotion program for them. DeMarco developed a thing called Taste Of Texas so they could label “This is a Texas-made product.” And so we had the big flag the Taste of Texas flag and the promotion of we—that they could run—that they could use that logo in their newspaper ads and television ads and that sort of thing. So we—we promoted it with them. I held a press conference with them. And (inaudible) this company is buying directly from Texas farmers you
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know and so, sure enough, that that bin of watermelons were sold before anything else any other watermelon was touched. And so they bought another load and another load and what we had done was to help organize the market because initially Kroger said, “Well, we can’t go up and down the road buying watermelons you know. We—we’re a big company. We said, “No, no, there’s a Co-op. We’ll deliver the volume; they’ll produce the quality the standard you want: the size, everything, you know. We’ll work with you on it.” And then those farmers were in the market. Kroger was making money; the farmers were making money; and so we were out of it. That’s Government as a catalyst. We didn’t run anything we didn’t create anything what we were was the catalyst that that opened the market up to the enterprise of – of these
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good farmers and—and we did that in every aspect of our—of our work. When we developed the organic standards for the State of Texas, at the time the most comprehensive standards the—that existed in the country. We did that by having not only you know a—a handful of organic farmers but also people from the market side of it. Whole Foods market had a representative on it; I think Kroger had somebody on it. We had people like John Dromgoole the Natural—the Natural Gardener company here on there. We had consumer advocates we had a wide range of interests come together to set—because we wanted regulations that would work. That’s the other thing I’ve said
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about—to my pesticide people, too, because I knew we were going to get big heat on—on trying to regulate pesticides. I said, “I want regulations that work; I don’t want you to—to just fulfill your dream of of pissing off the chemical companies, you know. I want regulations that actually do a—achieve the goals that we have that protect the farm worker; that protect the neighbor that’s up against the cotton field; that keeps the food cleaner. So not regulation for regulation’s sake but to achieve the actual goals.” I know that seems obvious but that’s not how a lot of regulation works. A lot of people sit down and—and they may have lawyers and economists and—and engineers and technicians ,and they write it all down on paper without consideration. Does this actually work out in the field? And so we
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were concerned that f—for the credibility of the program these things actually will—going to take huge heat in even proposing them. So once they were in then they had to work or they would not survive.
DT: What sort of heat did you get what sort of reaction (inaudible) chemical (inaudible)?
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JH: Well, well I mean—among—I mean besides of course supporting my opponents with – with lots of money and – and energy and enthusiasm in – in my subsequent races for Ag Commissioner, they they constantly messed with us in the Legislature. And m—messing with our budget and just playing games at some level; but then they also got serious. Bill Clements was Governor at this time and he was a Republican. And – and
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so, two proposals came forth in that session of the Legislature which I think would have been like ’87. Anyway, one was to remove the pesticide-making authority from my office and put it into – into the Water Commission, a safer harbor for the chemical boys. And then the second was to make my office appointed rather than elected; the Governor would appoint them. And so that was that was a very tough Legislative session, because we basically had to spend five months battling this beast, but we did it by going back to
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my Populist instincts and that is: that you don’t fight these battles inside because we lose there. They’ve got the money. They’ve got the connections, the buddy system and et cetera. But going to the outside going to the countryside and saying, “Here’s what they’re proposing. Is that what you want?” And a quick example: they held their opening hearing in the House of Representatives on both of these pieces of Legislation in an unfriendly committee and and in fact Rick Perry who’s now the Governor was- was
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the Chair of this committee and he was com—completely in the pocket of it what was then called the Texas Chemical Council. And so, they were really going to nail me. And so they were having this hearing, but such a crowd showed up, that they couldn’t do it in the hearing room. They had to have it on the floor of the House. And the galleries were packed, and packed not only with environmentalists but, for example, the Dallas Republican Women’s Organization came down to testify because they don’t want pesticides on their food. And my lead-off witness was Willie Nelson who said that he was there for the—the
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horny toads, the jack rabbits, and the whippoorwills. He told a wonderful little story about how they were disappearing because of the chemicals. And then my second witness was Barbie Jordan who gave them a lecture in Constitutional Government and how public office is not enhanced by removing the people’s power to vote for an official. And and then a series of other witnesses, like the Dallas Republican Women and others, and by the time the hearing was done, Perry couldn’t get anyone on his committee to make the
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motion that they approve either pieces of Legislation! So they couldn’t move it in committee. They later moved it circuitously onto the floor and we did have a—a vote. Basically we won. We—we—they couldn’t get anywhere on the on the electing—on the changing an a—to an appointment process rather than electing the Ag Commissioner and they did a little board created to oversee pesticide regulation but it was it wasn’t anything that affected our ability to—to do the job that we were s—s—had set out to do.
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DT: Speaking of jobs, can you talk briefly about I guess your promotion after your political career at the TDA to some of your more recent work in radio and—and on the internet and in publications? It seems like you’ve got a whole new bully pulpit (inaudible).
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JH: Well h—having been in office f—for two terms, elected twice in a State like Texas, I had developed something of a national following. And there were people interested in my giving fuller voice to—to that side of my politics not the holding office but using that word again being a catalyst of – of Populist politics. And to—to drop one big name, Norman Lear had supported me politically and he called and said, “We need a voice on radio. And at that time, this was in nineteen ’90 ’91 the big conservative voice
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on the radio was Paul Harvey and so we model—modeled a little commentary program on—Paul Harvey had a five minute show – and we modeled ours on that, though radio has—had changed quite a bit so you—you weren’t going to be able to get on for five minutes. But we decided you could for two minutes, and so that’s what our commentary is – two minutes in length. And then along came Rush Limbaugh – began to climb and and—and be such a force in radio and in right-wing politics at the time, so it made it even more urgent that there be some kind of a voice out there that was th—that was counter to
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his kind of pro-corporate and right-wing nutbowlism that he—that he embraces. And so developed the commentary radio show that began to air in, let’s see ‘93, I guess February of ’93, so it’s almost ten years old now that we’ve been doing that and that airs around the country. And out of that came ABC had an interest in in my doing a weekend talk radio show -three hours Saturday and three hours Sunday, which I did. And all of this gave me a whole new for for talking about these Populist issues environmental issues, corporate
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issues, all of which really are issues about power. And that’s—that’s what I say about environmentalism when I’m—when I speak to environmental groups. This is not about parts per billion it is—it is not about another regulation on pesticide re—residue it’s about power who has power? Wh—h—wh—how can they a handful of self-interested investors make fundamental decisions that are killing people and are poisoning our whole planet? It’s about power. They have the power now, but we got to form a movement that brings that decision-making process back down to earth, back down to the people
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themselves. And so I could talk about that on the radio and bring on guests, and and that sort of thing, and focus on whatever I wanted to talk about that weekend. And that was going swimmingly until 1995 when in one week the Telecommunications Act passed the U.S. Senate. This was a nasty piece of Legislation that that we’re now living with has shackled around us that basically unleashed conglomerates to own all the radio stations all the TV stations all the cable systems et cetera. So the—so the monopolistic situation
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we’re finding ourselves in more and more including even over the internet began really th—the—the sort of watershed again was this Telecommunications Act passing and in that same week Walt Disney Inc. announced that they were buying ABC. And so I went on the air on Saturday denouncing both of these as infringements upon our – upon our ability to be self-governing; our democratic possibilities were shrunk if conglomerates owned the media and – and then the Senate will—the—the Congress will
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allow a—a handful of conglomerates to own all of the media. Then it means that you know a diversity of voices are—are not going to be heard. And I had a little Mickey Mouse character on the air with me, and allow as how I now worked for a rodent. So so we had a little fun with it that day, but Disney was not all that amused and six weeks later I was off the air. But the real reason I was off the air was not because I made fun of
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them but because they didn’t want any voice talking about corporate power and money which was the theme of my show. They’re perfectly happy to have a liberal on radio who will talk about the social issues oh yeah let’s get into it about abortion and gun control or prayer in the schools they love that that’s feisty stuff you know but when you say well (inaudible)…
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JH: Well what’s at work is that the individual corporate executive may be the biggest sweetheart that there is in town. But that corporate Executive has a mandate, an imperative, to set even their own interest and their own family interest aside. Yes, they’re going to end up eating the genetically altered food and the poisoned food themselves. They’re breathing bad air along with the rest of us. But what they do at their day job is dictated not by environmental values or democratic values, but by the bottom line of the profits and the stock price of their corporation. And if they don’t show a big return on investment, an increase in stock price every quarter (not every year, every
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quarter), they’re going to be displaced; they’re going to lose their job. And to make those numbers look good as we’ve now learned from Enron and Global Crossing and Anderson Consulting and others, the shortcuts have got to be taken. And so we have a WalMart-ization of our workplace in which WalMart, now the largest corporation in the world; it surpassed Exxon/Mobil the largest employer in the w—in the world. It’s three times more employers than—employees than General Motors. WalMart has one ma—mantra and that is: get the cost down. And that means paying the cheapest possible wage that they can here at home to their Associates. They don’t even
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call them “employees”. They don’t want them thinking like workers. To their Associates, so WalMart employees are very poorly paid and the workplace is something of a beast. It’s one of the most fined corporations in our country for e—everything from environmental laws to – to worker rights laws, disability laws, et cetera. But they also outsource as much as possible to Third World hellholes, sweatshops. WalMart is the biggest buyer of goods from China, and not only is it the biggest buyer, but it has sixty-five thousand suppliers that—companies that make the stuff that’s sold in WalMart. WalMart requires many of them to open their books to them so they can go over the
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books and say, “You could cut your costs here and give us a cheaper price. And cutting costs means you also need to go to China to make your stuff.” So there’s this huge pressure in our economy on the corporate executive to make these returns, and those returns are based on getting costs down as though that’s the only value – price equals value in their minds. And the result is we have a downsizing of the middle class and the middle class possibility in this country and elsewhere throughout the world. And we have corporate
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executives willing to make the shortcuts on environmental regulations in order to keep that stock price high, keep cost down, and keep the keep the big investors and the Wall Street analysts happy. So it’s not a matter of an individual in a corporation; it is a matter of the corporate structure itself is now so authoritarian and so compelling, so over-weaning in its power, that it is as my Mama would say, “Gotten too big for its britches.”
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And they are now, in effect, our sovereigns. Decisions over everything from what we read in the newspaper to – to what’s in our food; what our job might be; to what’s in our water are n—not made by Government, not made by the public. It’s made by a handful of executives sitting in executive suites somewhere and pulling the strings of people in government through their monetary controls. that’s the bad news. the—the good news
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is that people in the countryside are rebelling against this. It doesn’t make—much make the news and it’s beneath the radar of the media and the politicians.
But there’s a hell of a rebellion taking place in America today. Little prairie fires being lit all across the country, and I’m lucky because with my political newsletter, my radio work, my columns, my speeches that I give around, I’m able to be in touch with a lot that a normal person just watching the media or reading the New York Times or something is not going to find happening. And what I find is that just about everyplace that’s got a zip code, has somebody or some group of people rebelling against this economic and
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political and environmental exclusion and contamination. And that is very heartening to me. I think it is a wonderful time to be an American; nd—and especially because of young people. Se saw it surge up in Seattle a couple of years ago at the big WTO protest.
[End of Reel #2171]
And then after Seattle that movement continued led by young people the protest against the IMF and the World Bank the protest at the Republican and Democratic Conventions, and the media misses this entirely. The media sees this as: “Well, what do these kids want? They—they don’t seem to have a focus. You know we r—we understood we were for Civil Rights or we were against the Vietnam War. What is it these kids want?” Well they’re saying it just about as loudly and clearly as they can: “We want democracy.” They’re saying, “Who the hell elected the WTO and the IMF and the World
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Bank to be our rulers?” And these people came together not only young people all kinds of folks but farmers labor environmentalists people c—concerned about all kinds of wide range of issues, but they were all focused on that central fundamental question that has always been the rallying cry for s—the spirited folks in our nation and that is: Who the hell is going to be in charge? We the people or a handful of global greed heads? And that is as important today as it was in 1776. And this rebellion that is taking place and is not only in the form of protest like that but also very constructive action of Students
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Against Sweatshops, United Students Against Sweatshops, a wonderful organization operative and I don’t know couple of hundred campuses now not only talking about the sweatshop issue but getting their Universities to stop buying sweatshop goods! They have succeeded. It’s a remarkable story – unreported – but mostly but a remarkable story of – of idealism in action and with success again led by young folks. The National Student Coalition Against Hunger and Homelessness is powerful movement. The E-Conference that is held annually the environmental groups within—on
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campuses – I’ve spoken to it a couple of times – powerful, powerful group, very dedicated people. All of these are different groups but all have this same mission and the same basic question of “Who has the power?” And the answer of course now is they have the power but they’re asking the—the most radical question that can be asked.
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Why? Why do they have the power and why don’t we have the power? And that is – is a very promising progressive force in our country and our—around the world, so I take a very optimistic view about where we’re headed in this country and—and around the world because the people themselves are in motion.
DT: Let me ask you one last question. I—I know that a—a lot of your political work and editorial work is—is pretty consuming and I was curious if there’s a—a—a place perhaps in the outdoors where you go to regroup and—and rebuild a place to get you some—some (inaudible)
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JH: Manure. Manure is the answer to that. Compost is the polite term for it. I have in my little house in South Austin, I’ve—I’ve got a—a backyard and a—a little garden. It has to be small because I travel too much to—to be able to keep it up. But – but every spring, I’m out there, and – and I have just had five yards – five cubic yards of top quality organic compost delivered. And I’ve gotten a—a—a bunch of it already dug into my garden; got the tomato plants in. So that is what gives me great joy, and then I will be s—spreading manure through my yard for the next several weeks. I’m accused of doing
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that politically, but in fact I do it literally, and that kind of takes me away from everything. And I don’t even really care whether I get tomatoes which I do but -but that’s—that’s just extra. It’s just the being there with that soil and – and with the plants and outdoor with the birds and you know et cetera. So it’s- it’s invigorating and rejuvenating.
DT: Good. Well this conversation has been very rejuvenating for us. Thank you so much…
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[End of Reel #2172]
[End of interview with Jim Hightower]