An "adult conversation" about farm politics

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack touring Farm Fresh to You facilities & speaking on & the American Jobs Act, Sept. 26, 2011, West Sacramento, CA. [Photo by NRDC California via Creative Commons.]

The farm bill extension slipped into the fiscal deal lends evidence to a growing perception: that political power is eroding in rural America.  Politico's David Rogers called it a "wake-up call"for farmers and rural folks:

As agriculture has grown more concentrated, it commands fewer votes. Indeed, consumer fears about milk prices drove the deliberations more than dairy farmers. And in these tough economic times for the nation, the farm sector has been enjoying relative prosperity and in the eyes of many lawmakers has become more complacent politically.

Farmers make up less than 2% of the U.S. population today.  About 20% of Americans live in rural towns.  And just 14% of them voted last November.

How do you achieve anything politically when you make up less than 2% of the population?  And when the party a majority of your fellow rural citizens voted for is struggling to find a message that resonates with 21st century America?

These are the questions farmers and the rural communities they live in are grappling with in 2013.  The nation's symbolic "farmer-in-chief", USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, threw down the gauntlet at the end of 2012 to get farmers to think critically about these very questions.  At a forum sponsored by the Farm Journal, Vilsack said we need "an adult conversation with folks in rural America".  According to the AP:

"Why is it that we don't have a farm bill?" said Vilsack. "It isn't just the differences of policy. It's the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it."

You can read a big chunk of Vilsack's speech here. Vilsack chastised rural America for picking fights that don't resonate with the rest of the country – howling over regulations that are more rumor than fact ("farm dust"); fighting for the right for children to do farm labor that many consider dangerous (Brian Mann reported on this issue last spring); and attacking food stamp beneficiaries, many of whom are senior citizens and single moms.

The major industry trade groups responded predictably.  The America Farm Bureau Federation says it still believes farms are over-regulated, calling new rules a "regulatory creek" (sounds like an awkward analogy to me, but hey…)

But let's stop for a moment and ask what would that "adult conversation" consist of?  Let's say rural Americans had one moment at the podium, when all those city folk sat quietly and really listened.

What would you say?  What do farmers need most?  What's your headline?



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  1. As a member of the "city folk", I don't know what rural farmers need most. But working and speaking with many farmers brings up a common trend; the need for community and the lack of a voice. A community of farmers working with consumers and politicians alike, on the same level, would be a powerful thing.

  2. What farmers need most:
    1. Common sense regulations. The concentration of agriculture has made it easy to target larger operations with a list of regulations which are totally impractical,and very often enforced by the letter, rather than by any logical practice. By and large, the consolidation of agriculture has resulted in the majority of production coming from better, safer, more environmentally sound farmers. This fact is ignored by regulators who go for the biggest target, rather than the 10 smaller ones who violate 20 times as much.

    2. Level playing field: The role of the government in regulating pricing, particularly in dairy, is essential to removing price deviation based on size or location. This does NOT mean setting prices, merely creating a standard market based system.

    3. Protection from antagonists: The production agriculture industry by nature comes with odors, noise, dust, slow equipment, and many other inconveniences for non farmers. People who chose to live in rural environments must recognize these things as a part of rural life rather than a litigation opportunity.

    4. Technology acceptance: We need to recognize the role of technology as a way to provide more and safer food for a growing world population. The efforts of groups to remove technology such as rbst and genomic crops is a huge disservice to the farmers who use these technologies responsibly to increase yield relative to inputs and acreage.

    5. Lower taxes: As with any business, farmers will produce more if they know they can keep the profits. Lower taxes encourage production, plain and simple.

    What we don't need

    1. Handouts: Farm policy has been hijacked by groups trying to get something for free. Ridiculous! We can survive without direct payments, MILC, or subsidized crop insurance. Time to grow up and live in the real world.

    2. Supply controls of any kind: Once again, we can take care of ourselves if we are not interfered with. The government's role is providing a level playing field, not enhancing prices

    • Well, this person does have a very particular point of view. I have to disagree with every word of item number 1, after the first three: "common sense regulations." Concentrating agriculture only leads to efficiencies on paper. It concentrates the bad things, the effluent and offal. It de-humanizes (if you will) the process of dealing with animals and creates huge issues with deleterious disease like e-coli and so forth that simply could never exist on that scale with small family farms. Giant farms run smaller farms off the land, whether they intend to or not, and it's not because they do a better job of it, it's because they have capitalized themselves heavily up front.

      As to the rest, I'm not a dairy farmer but I'd sure like to know what they think of the idea of no MILC program. Farmers can't survive on the milk prices we've seen in the last 20 years, even on big farms. What happens with no help at all? That's a grim scenario. But it all works in a world where we think that sucking the soil dry and chemicalizing the food supply is the answer — and it is, for short term profits.

  3. I am enjoying the few days old blog! However, I (predictably) disagree strongly with the perception that farming and the rural voice has been lost in Washington D.C. based on farm bill discussions. What's lost in the analysis is that the farm bill is really not a bill just for farmers, since well over 2/3 of the bill consists of spending for nutrition programs, SNAP, etc. Arguing over nutrition caused most of the angst over the Farm Bill in my opinion – farmers were actually willing to drop traditional subsidy programs in favor of better tools for risk management – improved crop insurance and margin insurance for dairy. The fights between the overall need to cut government spending and the various House and Senate approaches to those cuts in nutrition in the Farm Bill were probably more instruemntal in ensuring inaction on the Farm Bill than any lack of rural influence.

    The fact that we actually have some safety net for dairy, in the form of the MILC program, as well as a limited extension in the midst of an extremely chaotic negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" shows that the influence of farmers is still intact. While we certainly did not make the progress we had hoped for, I would hardly consider this to be a failure of the farm influence but rather a failure of an ability to have civic discourse amongst our national political leadership on any of the issues of the day.

    • If our federal government does indeed need to cut spending, nutrition programs and SNAP etc. are no place to start. Take a look at our bloated military and defence spending, and the rich who profit from these industries first.

      • These programs don't belong i the farm bull!

  4. The secretay is right. We are only 2% of the population and only a small fraction of us are willing, or able, to get involved in the politics that affect us. Many don't even subscribe to or read their commodity trade publications. Likewise they don't join or participate in farm organixations.
    Most of us are illprepared to address the press about our farming practices or to counter the deliberate misinformation campaingns of our adversaries.
    Nor are many farmers willing to fund the organizations working on our behalf. We are being out spent by the fear for profit groups intent on making millions at our expense. While we are "too busy" to do anything about it

  5. Kirby, Julie, Michael, Aaron – Great to have you guys here participating in the debate. It's a big one for the future of rural economies. I hope you'll come back regularly!

    • Glad to have you back!
      As for what the government can do for me,(I raise lamb) it could develope a pro-rated fee schedule so I can compete with the big distributers, it could encourage more education to produce more quality meet cutters, it could encourage local IDAs to help fund food processing centres.

      • Direct marketing is the way to go. I buy a lamb from a friend every year, a pig from my cousin, chickens from my uncle, and half a beef from a co-worker, These transactions take place with as little government oversight as possible … usually only the health inspector at the processor, and that's how we prefer it. Sidestep those cumbersome regulations, grow a better product, and make friends with your direct consumers.

        • I already sell direct at farmers markets and to restaurants and grocery stores. The warehose permit which allows me to do this is 400 regarles of size. I need to sell more than one or two lambs a year to make any money. The only USDA slaughter house available has a hard time getting meat cutters. They allow me to take only 10 animals every two weeks and I'm normally out of product befoe the two weeks are over. I raise grassfed lambs and they have to be slaughtered in the spring and summer to get the best quality meat. My customers are complimentary on the quality and flavour so I must be doing something right. However ther are only so many lamb customers up here and if I want to grow my business I have to sell into a bigger market. I and 4 other sheep farmers have formed a co-op to do that. We are offering value added products including three types of sausages, hot dogs and lamb sticks (similar to "Slim Jims").
          We also sell whole carcasses to butcher shops.
          Yes we are in this to make money.For that I make no appolgies! One of the best sayings I've heard on the matter is " Farming as a way of life is a terrible business, but, farming as a business is a great way of life."