Letter From Langdon: Shhhhh...Farm Bill
There are just some things politicians can't talk about ahead of ballot time. That’s why no one in Congress wants to utter those two little words "farm bill" before the 2012 elections.
I could write pages on the farm bill, and anyone who's never worked with one wouldn't really understand. Most of us who have worked on farm bills, truth be told, don't understand much either.
The way Congress does things makes it look as though you aren't supposed understand, know or even see. That’s because of an intricate process favoring a fistful of special interests that want a grab bag of commodity crops for a shell game of food ingredients.
Where food is concerned two words are too many, and a thousand aren't enough. If I were in Congress, I think I'd keep my lip buttoned, too.
So agriculture and rural America are on the QT while Congress argues publicly over fiscal responsibility. The current farm bill expires in September of next year. Thanks to massive speculation in markets, world trade, and higher prices for the farm commodity basket, lots of politicians are wondering why we even need an ag law.
And keep this under your hat; if we can play fast and loose on Wall Street, why not put food in the big casino, too?
Agriculture isn't fool proof. Trade can be disrupted, drought can rain misery, or floods can drain the pantry and farmers’ bank accounts. Trust me, I know about this.
Without at least some government intervention, well, place your bets.
Who Lives in the 'Real World'?
If you set aside political rhetoric and special interest conniving, the end game of farm legislation should be about keeping a steady flow of food, priced not too low and not too high, out of the rural breadbasket into the real world.
But what, really, is the "real world"?
A) For farmers, the real world is weather, expenses, weather, yield, weather, prices, weather, and income. And don't forget weather.
B) For the big corporations that sell us machinery, seed, and chemicals, the real world is R&D, marketing, and patents that let them dictate prices they receive without the leveling effects of competition.
C) For big corporations that buy our commodities and resell them, the real world is burgeoning supplies of grain and world trade. Some of those same corporations also raise livestock, feeding them a big part of the grain they buy. With those big players, the real world is expansion through control of the egg from kernel to Colonel.
D) For consumers the real world is two or three meals a day costing somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 percent of disposable income. That leaves room in the other 90 percent of the budget for household goods, appliances, automobiles, gasoline, cheap Chinese stuff, and taxes.
About the only people in the world who pay less for food than Americans are those who still chase dinner with a spear.
E) For politicians the real world is cheap food, continued corporate contributions and voter complacency.
F) For commodity speculators there is no real world.
The Long Full Circle
Federal, state, and local taxes actually cost the average family more than the food share of their budget. (See E above.). Except when weather (A) happens (good and bad), the cost of food is ultimately determined by B, C, D, E, and F.
That brings us full circle back to the tax-revenue-funded, corporate-dictated farm bill that politicians don't really want to discuss — especially funding for law enforcement of marketing laws through Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration.
Don't ask/don't tell is alive and well in corporate America and can be found at a farm near you.
Don't ask if it's illegal. Don't tell if it is.
Farm bill time is muscle-flexing time for farm groups with bulging biceps. But to hear them talk about subsidies you'd think they were 98-pound weaklings in need of a transfusion. Birds gotta sing, bees gotta buzz, and big ag producer groups have to lobby. But no real farmer wants a handout. All farmers really want are good prices, a decent living, fair markets, and a way to help control their risk.
If Congress Was Serious About Saving
The Farm Service Agency (FSA) is basically the only branch of the Department of Agriculture that works locally with people who actually produce something. It’s a pretty cheap outfit. Only about 1/2 of one percent of the budget is spent at FSA on farms and agriculture. By comparison, if the entire Department Agriculture budget was the world, farm funding from USDA would be Uganda.
The rest of the farm bill goes to fill a big lunch box called USDA, where they feed the poor, fund rural development, supervise school lunches, watchdog food safety, and oversee the nation’s forests. USDA has about 105,000 total employees, but only 5,000 work out in the country directly for Farm Service Agency.
On the other hand it costs taxpayers almost $6 billion to fund 535 members of Congress in Washington, DC.
If Congress is serious about saving money, it would limit benefits any one farmer can collect, including crop insurance subsidies.
The USDA could also offer more insurance products for other family farm crops and livestock to help stave off disaster when weather or markets turn stormy. That would keep real family farms, the ones who work the cheapest, in business. (Remember; the bigger the farm, the bigger the federal cost, the bigger the farmer's tax-subsidized profit)
And the federal government could enforce competition laws and limit conservation payments for dubious activity, such as paying manure storage costs for big corporate livestock producers. All of these are nothing more than backdoor subsidies.
Then Congress could have a heart and help young farmers get ahead with beginning farmer loans.
Up until yesterday, the farm bill was to be written by a committee behind closed doors where no one but corporations will hear the conversation. With the announcement that the supercommittee is unable to break their deadlock, we're back to square one on agriculture.
In the long run, maybe that's better for farmers, but it also leaves food policy at the mercy of big business.
That will drive food prices, imports, and corporate profits higher while food safety and quality get the silent treatment.
But you didn't hear it from me.
Richard Oswald is a farmer in northwestern Missouri. He is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.