The resignation of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party could change things for US agriculture. Two mighty farm-state champions, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), have a chance to pass farm legislation which protects national food security, the environment, and our small, independent owner/operator food and fiber producers, the farm and ranch families of America.
Daschle's Senate majority is as thin as that of Republican Trent Lott before him, and everyone in Washington knows it. Corporations with dogs in the fight pave the road to any Farm Bill with enormous lobbying efforts. Food processors Cargill, ADM, ConAgra and merging Tyson/IBP, banking and insurance giants, and other beneficiaries of the "new global economy" make campaign contributions to like-minded candidates and party war chests. They also give to right-wing commodity and producer groups that serve as Judas goats, confusing farmers and legislators about the crisis of farm income that is the result of more than a quarter century of export-based farm policy.
A bipartisan, good-faith effort could forge a new farm policy to restore price-impacting tools to American agriculture producers. Non-recourse loans set at profitable levels, a farmer-owned reserve, meaningful market reform and anti-trust enforcement, and production control incentives would give farmers and ranchers a fair price in a competitive market for what they produce.
But the House and Senate will have to puzzle their way past a number of major red herrings. These are public policy traps laid for Congress, and they are:
Business as usual: Export volume of major agricultural commodities has not increased in 25 years, despite forecasts and promises of increased exports by many presidential administrations. Value of exports to producers, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has declined by 30-40% for these commodities in that same quarter century. Export-based farm policy has created a flood of cheap product for the grain and meat traders, and stolen value from producers.
And now, Bush's Agriculture secretary thinks exports will increase as a result of new trade agreements! During the Nixon administration, graffiti writers asked "Why is the government always lying?" Look for this folk wisdom to appear in bar bathrooms across rural America this summer.
Expanded role for insurance: This dog still won't hunt. Subsidies for more disaster and crop insurance enhance profits for big insurance carriers, but nobody really believes that a large-scale system of income or price insurance can work. Farmers and ranchers will tell you, if they got a fair price in the market for what they produced, they could buy their own insurance. Thanks very much.
Fast track authority for the president: No president needs or ought to have so-called fast track authority. Congress has the responsibility to examine trade agreements closely, to determine the interests of this nation and others, and to approve agreements that benefit Americans and uphold social and environmental standards for all parties. Fast track authority will not save American agricultural producers. It will only let George W. Bush help the grain trade drive commodity prices down and speed up the race between farmers here and around the world to the bottom of the economic barrel.
Counter-cyclical payments: This past year Congress approved about $22 billion in emergency and other payments to farmers. President Bush wants to cap next year's payments at $5.5 billion. The surplus evaporated as the dot.com economy tanked and the president gave away the tax base. The truth is, the money to bail farmers out year after year just won't be there.
Welfare-style payments to farmers are politically unsustainable. Calling payments to producers "counter-cyclical" confuses people into thinking that commodity price is determined by forces outside anyone's control. Price is not the product of great cycles like weather and seasons. A handful of grain traders in the US set the world price, in the absence of true commodity floor prices established in farm programs.
Making the Farm Bill into a Conservation Bill: This most dangerous red herring trades on the power of good people. Everyone these days likes the Conservation and Wetlands Reserve Programs, and some would make them the centerpiece of the next Farm Bill. These are the programs comedians love to hate -- paying farmers not to grow something -- but it's no laughing matter. CRP and WRP protect America's environmental "capital" -- our soil, water, critter habitat and more. They discourage the farming of lands that, thanks to technology, can be farmed, but which, environmentally, ought to be left in cover, native or otherwise.
Farmers who lack basic economic tools to impact price see the advantage of conservation programs to help curb overproduction. Environmental groups are vocal and enthusiastic.
An aggressive coalition of church, consumer, environmental and rural interests can shape America's future to mean farm and ranch families keep on producing the safe, reliable food supply that is our heritage. Environmental groups should not let themselves be used to highjack the Farm Bill. CRP and WRP, without the other price impacting tools farmers need, won't stop the hemorrhaging in rural America.
Crane-lovers and tree-huggers are among my favorite people. But the environmental community needs to know that no separate peace is possible in this matter. Abandon family farming and ranching now, and we secure the future of factory farming. Soon, there won't be much country left to save.
Want to help? Go to www.acga.org. Read everything, then call the US Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121, get staff or a member on the phone, and start talking about price. And conservation.
A good time would be now.
Sally Herrin is education and communications director of the Nebraska Farmers Union. Email NeFUSal@aol.com or phone 402-476-8815.