Even for Faith-Filled Farmers, the Evidence of Things Unseen Is Lacking

Faith may move mountains, but it makes a pretty lousy international trade policy. Farmers face difficult numbers in the here and now.

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Being a farmer takes faith. Faith that wind will blow but not too hard. Faith that the sun will shine but not too hot. Faith that rain will fall but not too much. Faith in all things, even government and markets.

Most of all, farmers need faith in ourselves. That’s because when all else fails, the burden rests squarely on us. (EDITOR’S NOTE: As if to reinforce this point, on Tuesday, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue issued a memo to “reestablish” the department’s commitment to freedom of religion.)

When NAFTA was proposed and implemented, U.S. farmers were told to have faith that it would open up new markets and improve prices for food’s raw materials that we grow. Early in its life, NAFTA numbers didn’t line up for farmers like me, because it looked like farmers in other countries were getting a bigger shot at my markets here and abroad than I got at theirs. But our leaders told us to have faith, because by helping those smaller, poorer countries develop their own markets, we in turn would profit from the wealth they created for themselves.

In other words our benefits were back-loaded.

If they made some money they would spend more here.

Now that we’ve had NAFTA for 23 years, when the real payoff for U.S. agriculture is coming due, our government wants to renegotiate.

It wasn’t Secretary Perdue, who said last week that farmers should have faith and produce as much as possible, but Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “If I were a farmer, I would plant as much as I can logically plant under today’s environment,” he said. “And I … certainly wouldn’t shrink my production just because there’s going to be some renegotiation, I think that would be silly.”

When it comes to producing too much, I’ve been silly before.

Maybe Sonny Perdue didn’t weigh in because he was only just confirmed to his Cabinet post a week or so ago. Farmers had an unprecedented lengthy wait, at least in modern times, for their chief advocate in the executive branch at USDA to be named and installed–almost six months. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that the time-delay-way USDA appointments have resolved themselves reveals a certain lack of priority for agriculture.

Only Labor was discounted more.

The administration seems preoccupied with building a wall guaranteed to prevent or at least delay migrant-worker fueled fruit and vegetable harvests from sea to shining sea. Not to worry Mr. and Mrs. Consumer. Chinese apples are on the way.

But I have faith that somehow, my agriculture will prevail.

Secretary Ross voiced a commonly held belief/myth about farming when he said, “The fact is that most of the rest of the world is incapable of feeding itself.”

In other words, he’s saying U.S. farmers feed the world. But we don’t. We don’t even feed all our own countrymen because trade agreements and the World Trade Organization have forced my government to accept more food products from foreign countries even as they accept less.

The secretary continues: “So it isn’t as though this is a discretionary purchase by people, nor, in most areas of farming, is there gross overcapacity in the world.”

Well … South America, the Ukraine, even China are expanding agricultural production, and their cost of production in most cases is lower than mine. That’s because I live in a developed nation where everything costs more.

But even if we lose business, other nations will fill the gap, Ross says. “If some country would cut back on what they purchase from us by going to someone else as a competing vendor, then whoever else had been the customer of that competing vendor is going to have to buy our stuff anyway.”

But, actually, the more we disrupt trade patterns, the more we will lose to low-cost competitors who are expanding their own surplus production of grain, cotton, oilseed, dairy, and meat.

Some of the hungriest nations on earth are that way because they have no wealth with which to buy food. That’s also one of the reasons they always seem to fare better in trade agreements, because in order for the agreement to deliver on its promises to us, we have to deliver opportunity for them.

In 1967 when I was a junior in high school, my father, a farmer, asked my intentions for the future.

“I’m going to be a farmer,” I said.

Dad reached into a desk drawer and produced his own production records of farming in the 1950s, carefully recorded in long hand, like Excel spreadsheets on a piece of tablet paper. They were a story of drought and depressed prices – shattered faith that somehow, everything would be all right.

“It wasn’t all right,” he said. In fact, it was bad.

“Pick a school. Do anything else. I’ll pay the tuition,” Dad said.

I wasn’t swayed.

“But if you stay, someday the farm will be yours.”

He doesn’t want to show it, but even the pessimist has faith.

Secretary Ross has faith. He apparently has no notion of the importance of the Farm Bill or crop insurance. He may be aware that Country of Origin Labeling is denied to farmers and ranchers in America because multinational meat packers want to sell cheap foreign meat to sophisticated American consumers who have faith in government oversight. But he’s not informed about Trump-delayed GIPSA rules that protect contract livestock and poultry growers from harm. And it seems to have escaped his notice that opening up concentrated livestock markets currently controlled by corporate, multinational meat packers. The secretary’s resume shows no reference to being a corn farmer in the 1950s, or a hog farmer in the ‘70’s, or a beef producer today.

Sleepless nights staring at a night-darkened ceiling.

Waiting for blessed relief–or sunrise.

I’d be happy to share.

Faith doesn’t deal with the realities of now. Bank notes due. Bills payable. Manipulated markets, monopolies, contract livestock grower mandatory arbitration, patented seed, oil prices, embargoes, trade deals….politics.

Faith has nothing to do with those. They are now.

Faith is a belief in the future. On that issue at least, Secretary Ross and I agree.

Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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