Letter from Langdon: Ag Nominee Just Got Handed a Hornet’s Nest. What Will He Do with It?

Sonny Perdue has nearly two years to craft the next farm bill. He’ll need every second. No one but corporations is very happy with the current system, but careless changes could leave a lot of broken farmers and hungry Americans.

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The word is in.

Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia, veterinarian, and veteran agri-businessman, is President Trump’s nominee to be the new Department of Agriculture secretary.

South versus north. East versus west. Midwest versus the rest. It all boils down to what kind of agriculture we’re talking about. Environmental Working Group (EWG),a research and advocacy group, has opposed ag programs with big cash payouts to farms, going so far as to publish all the names of U.S. farmers alongside their ag program payment totals, directly on their Environmental Working Group website.

Here’s what Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at EWG said about Trumps USDA pick:

“It’s certainly hard to imagine that a former fertilizer salesman will tackle the unregulated farm pollution that poisons our drinking water, turns Lake Erie green, and fouls the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.”

Sonny Perdue has just walked into a hornets’ nest.

EWG is well within their rights to reveal subsidies paid to farms. After all, it’s your money. In some cases those subsidized farms represent nothing more than corporate shells, designed to capture dollars. But on most of the farms EWG reveals, price supports mean the difference between success and failure. That’s because the cost of producing basic farm commodities we refine into food is more than what farmers sell them for. That’s not sustainable for farmers with finite bank accounts, so the government approach is to subsidize food by subsidizing farmers.

People, like those at EWG, sometimes say that subsidizing farmers is more about sustaining markets where corporations can sell stuff that’s bad for you and the planet. But the problem with environmental types isn’t the good they do or the excesses they highlight. It is that they don’t accept that the broad scale of agriculture provides the food most people buy in grocery stores and fast food franchises. Sure, it’s factory food, but that’s the system consumers and government have supported and built for the last 50 years.

Turn that upside down too quickly and food prices, along with corporations, will rise just as fast.

I wouldn’t mind raising chickens, some hogs, and a few steers and all the feed those animals eat, feeding everything I grow to them right here on the farm, and selling mature animals into an open marketplace where value and price are determined by supply and demand. But I can’t do that, because in America today there is no such market unless it’s done on a small scale for farmers markets or CSA. But where I and most farmers live, in wide open spaces among big fields, there aren’t enough consumers to go around.

Cities have food deserts. We have people deserts.

So one way or another, we all work for corporations

My government admitted, somewhat belatedly, that we have problems with competition in animal agriculture. Obama’s Ag Secretary, Tom Vilsack, said as much by releasing revised Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Act rules as he walked out the door of USDA. Those new rules would protect farmers whose only chance to grow hogs or poultry on a scale large enough to make a living is by doing it under contract, for a corporation.

That’s where Sonny Perdue comes in.

The GIPSA rules put forth (Congress actually defunded them to keep the Obama Administration on hold) offered protections for farmers who have largely become dependent on the good will of big multinational companies in a meat animal marketplace where only the big survive. Sometimes even they fail. That leaves grain farmers scratching their heads, looking at the perils of animal agriculture, hoping to avoid their own failure by working the best they can with the markets they’ve got.

The problem is that in politics as well as agriculture, entrenched interests control the debate. Meat packers have one thing to say, big agribusiness has their spiel. Grain producer groups want what they want, and environmental groups claim the high ground without any solution to how 9 billion people on the planet will be fed — affordably.

It’s true what environmentalists say, that in most of the world, agriculture is done on a much smaller, less polluting scale than what we do in the developed world. It’s also one reason why so many people with empty stomachs live in developing nations, but not here. Farm leaders here hanker to fill that void with exports while filling the hole in our profits. But the other reason consumers in developing nations are hungry is that they don’t have money for food.

There are limits to how cheap we can work.

Even as we search for new income, we find new expenses–even if we aren’t looking for them. Two years ago, Monsanto released their newest patented genetically modified soybean varieties, designed to resist a very old herbicide. Other soybeans, trees, and plants remain vulnerable to that herbicide called dicamba, a 2,4-D relative that is as nonselective as an herbicide can be. Dicamba kills vulnerable plants on contact, sometimes as much as three weeks after being applied to the target crop, by moving on wind or temperature inversions to off-target sites. But Monsanto didn’t wait for EPA approval of dicamba use on soybeans before releasing resistant seeds for sale. They sold them, farmers bought them, and everybody pretty much knew what would happen. The result was that farmers who were told their seeds could grow resistant plants used that pesticide even though application hadn’t been approved by the government.

When those farmers sprayed their soybeans with dicamba anyway, a conservative estimate of over 100,000 crop acres were damaged by off target contact including trees as well as susceptible soybeans and other plants. Environmentalists jumped on that information like a duck on a June bug. The rest of us, farmers, probably should have too. But most farmers tend not to be too critical of neighbors lest someday the shoe might be on the other foot. So the outcome was more financial loss for some farmers whose crops and orchards were damaged and a black eye for all of main stream agriculture.

Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy.

Monsanto makes money either way.

The focus now is what will Ag Secretary-nominee Perdue do? Will he support cheap production of feed grains for poultry in the southeastern United States, or support corn price boosting ethanol and exports as his predecessor, Tom Vilsack did? Will he work to pass a farm bill with revenue backups for grains, cotton, livestock, and dairy, or will he take the Tea Party tack of lower taxes through reduced outlays of government cash via the farm program?

That’s the $12 billion question, because out of the $140 or so billon Ag budget, farmers only get about a tenth. Most of the rest feeds those poor hungry people we need here at home in order to help sustain prices for farmers.

If Perdue doesn’t shore up traditional supports like those built into most farm programs since 1996, and if ethanol, and exports to places like China are curtailed, and if food aid programs for people right here at home are chopped, slowly falling commodity and land prices will most certainly turn into an avalanche of bad farm debt. That’s what happened in the years leading up to the ’96 farm bill. With a new farm bill due in 2018, Perdue has one year to convince Congress of whatever future he sees for agriculture during the first term of the Trump Administration, before the old farm bill expires.

Regardless of what he does there will be plenty of opinions to go round.

The clock is ticking.

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

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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