Divorcing themselves from reality seems pervasive throughout the current Bush administration as exemplified once again by the USDA Secretary Mike Johanns's recently released "comprehensive analysis of key factors that will affect future growth in US agriculture: international trade, research and development, protection of agriculture from pests and diseases, and challenges in preparing the next generation of farmers."
Johanns stressed that his paper "looks at the evolution of the agricultural marketplace and the strategies that farmers have used to meet emerging challenges.
"As we discuss a new farm bill," Johanns adds, "we must consider how best to support future growth in agriculture. This analysis highlights opportunities to do so by improving our global competitiveness, making research and agriculture protection programs more effective, and facilitating the transition of farms to the farmers of tomorrow."
One searches almost in vain for any mention of agriculture's main concerns -- a fair price for what farmers produce and the ever-increasing concentration in the marketplace that in combination relegates family farmers today to simply raw-material providers for a giant food manufacturing system.
It would have benefited Johanns to have taken note of the real concerns of family farmers in this country as expressed by in the hearings held by the National Farmers Union throughout the country this past summer.
Reading through a sample of the state-by-state summaries of the 13 grassroots hearings one can clearly see that fair prices for their products and market concentration are the dominant issues that currently concern our nation's family farmers.
NEBRASKA: Farmers emphasized the need to protect the farm safety net and for Congress to craft policy that allows producers to get a fair price from the marketplace. They also stressed that there is a dire need for emergency disaster assistance now and also said they would like to see government promote fair and open markets for commodities, and policies that encourage competition.
MISSOURI: NFU President Tom Buis recalls that "we heard about the importance of receiving a fair price from the marketplace, opposition to the proposed National Animal Identification System and ideas for how to better market our products to consumers." Market concentration, educating consumers about the benefits of family farms, promoting local food systems and the food stamp program authorization were also discussed.
MICHIGAN: "After hearing from Michigan's family farmers and ranchers, it is clear that we need a farm bill that fulfills its promises," Michigan Farmers Union President Marilynn Momber said. "We need a farm bill that enforces antitrust laws, supports fair trade agreements, implements [country-of-origin labeling] and does away with concentration." The session attendees also voiced their concerns over the government's proposed National Animal Identification System (NAIS).
CALIFORNIA: "Congress should make supporting family farmers and ranchers a priority by adequately funding programs such as the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which keeps producers afloat during hard times," California Farmers Union President Joaquin Contente said. "Additionally, we've faced devastating drought conditions across the state and disaster assistance is badly needed. Relying on ad-hoc payments or crop insurance programs isn't going to cut it. Producers need a permanent disaster program to help them confront weather-related disasters."
OHIO: "In Ohio, the farmers that joined us for our Listening Session told us that they felt it was imperative that Congress draft policy that helps farmers adequately distribute and market their high-quality products," Buis said. "They expressed a tremendous amount of hope in the potential for direct producer-to-consumer marketing to help farmers get a fair price for their products." Many attendees at the forum expressed a strong preference toward a competition title in the farm bill. They expressed a very strong concern that current antitrust laws are not being enforced, and said that ensuring fair and open markets should be a top priority for Congress.
WISCONSIN: "In Wisconsin, producers were particularly concerned about cuts to the farm safety net when Congress rewrites the 2002 Farm Bill," NFU Vice President of Government Relations Bart Chilton said. "They were specifically concerned about dairy policy, conservation and disaster assistance, but worried about the wide-sweeping implications of drafting the farm bill in the current political and economic climate." They underscored the need for a permanent disaster relief program that protects against quality losses. Permanent disaster relief would assist producers during times of natural disasters without having to rely upon yearly ad-hoc assistance or the political climate in Washington, D.C.
Generally, the sessions' findings fell into eight different categories of concern:
Profitability from the marketplace
Emergency disaster assistance
Extension of the 2002 Farm Bill
Fuels from the farm and energy conservation
Competition in agriculture markets
Cuts to agriculture programs
"At every listening session, participants expressed frustration at the lack of natural-disaster assistance," President Buis said. "Story after story made it clear that much of rural America is suffering greatly at the hands of Mother Nature." More than 50% of all US counties have been declared disaster areas by USDA in 2006. The 2002 Farm Bill was not designed to provide protection or mitigate weather-related losses, and risk management programs are insufficient in addressing production and quality losses.
Looking to the future, the National Family Farm Coalition's president, Iowa farmer George Naylor -- testifying on behalf of his coalition's 22 grassroots organizations -- emphasized that what is desperately needed is a new farm policy proposal to create a sustainable farm and food system.
"Our farm bill, called the Food from Family Farms Act (FFFA), would improve the environment, create new economic opportunities in rural America and support similar aspirations in every other country on our beautiful planet. Unlike the current farm policy, provisions in the Food from Family Farms Act, predicated on the principle of Food Sovereignty, will build goodwill among our trading partners and give them a chance for balanced sustainable economic development."
Other main features of the Food from Family Farms Act include a price support system, food security reserves, and conservation set-asides with full planting flexibility, which would work together to guarantee prices that reflect the true cost of production.
The Food from Family Farms Act encourages such a transition through full implementation of the Conservation Security Program (CSP), offering incentives on working lands for more conserving crops and practices that fit well with diversified family farming, bio-energy and local food production.
As Naylor stresses, "a balanced family farm system will require less fossil fuel and give opportunities for farmers to become producers of clean renewable energy."
Clearly, Johanns would greatly benefit from listening to his primary constituency -- family farmers -- rather than the so-called "commodity groups," their corporate paymasters and the American Farm Bureau Federation that come and go in the myriad hallways of the US Department of Agriculture.
A.V. Krebs publishes the online newsletter, "The Agribusiness Examiner"; email firstname.lastname@example.org. He is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness.
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