Letter from Langdon: The Fading Farm Bill

The difficulty in passing the 2014 farm bill may indicate the declining political influence of big agriculture. But if history is any judge, there will plenty in the trough for the “big hogs” who also cleaned up after the 1996 farm bill. 

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It used to be that most people had some rural American experience in their background. If they hadn’t grown up in the country at least parents or grandparents had. Having those rural roots gives basic understanding of a way of life. 

Today’s generation of Americans is the first to have virtually no rural ties. 

It doesn’t happen very often anymore except during hunting season. But after the big flood in 2011 a few outsiders came to Langdon to view the damage. That’s when a FEMA inspector showed up to look at roads washed away by the river flood. He was green as a gourd when it came to farms and rural America. Some of what he saw just didn’t make sense. 

As we drove across tabletop-flat bottom land, picking our way around four foot-deep washouts and potholes, Henry asked; “Why are all these fences out here on cropland in the middle of nowhere?”  

I was so glad he asked.  

When I was born there were homes and families on farmsteads all around Langdon. Today, one of the few remaining buildings in Langdon is a two-story brick schoolhouse where Langdon kids attended class. Langdon Friendly 4H, the biggest 4-H club in the county, used to hold its meetings there. 

But that was then. 

So my answer to Henry was simple. First the families went. Then the houses and outbuildings rotted down. Last to go were wire fences. That’s about all that remains of what was once a thriving community.  

I’m not sure he got it. 

When I was born, there were 13 houses along the road that passes by my home. All of them held farmers, people who worked for farmers, or retired farmers whose land was worked by family or neighbors. Today seven houses remain along my road. Only four of them are occupied. 

I am the only person living along my road still connected to farming and agriculture. 

Reasons why people left Langdon are mostly age related or economic. Classic low-price scenarios where some fail and others succeed … one farmer leaves and a neighbor or two persevere by taking control of his land. Old ones just up and died. 

Vacant farmhouses became low-cost housing for awhile. Then government water management and the 2011 flood took care of that. Eventually, enough is enough. 

People stopped coming back. 

But the farm situation is mostly to blame for broad rural community failure. During the 1980s and 90s it got so bad in parts of the corn belt that farmers couldn’t afford to downsize or expand, and most couldn’t afford to leave. If the farmer couldn’t make assets work for him, the banker knew he couldn’t either. Lenders cut delinquent borrower deals just to avoid what seemed unavoidable. 

In those days as in the Great Depression, foreclosed land sat in banker’s laps with no hope of buyers. It seemed no one in his right mind would buy farmland. Machinery prices were depressed. New tractors and combines stayed on dealers’ lots for years until discounts made them affordable. 

Some land owners worried their land might be idled if the tenant farmer gave up. 

In 1996 Congress finally saw the need to do something by passing a farm bill budget big enough to kick-start growth. There were payment limits in the Freedom to Farm Act, because the whole point was not to spur big farms with huge air drops of money, but to make grain prices find equilibrium and fairness in open markets. 

At least that’s what they said. 

Fixing the problem was supposed to take a few years – then no more farm payments. That’s when farmers, free to grow some of the crops they wanted but not all (food crops like vegetables were discouraged) were free to succeed or free to fail. 

They were supposed to be on their own. 

Farm bill changes came after big agriculture interests objected to payment limitations. Farms, a lot of them in the South where cotton and rice are predominant crops, said they needed more money. They got it when Congress rendered most limitations on government support meaningless during reconciliation. 

A few corn belt farmers “got it” too, when they realized cheap land combined with big government payouts meant pedal-to-the-metal tax-payer funded expansion. Land and machinery prices quickly began to recover. 

That’s also when the final chapter on rural communities, schools and Main Street was written. 

Now USDA’s own belated statistics show that despite all the billions spent to stabilize our farm economy, farm consolidation accelerated. Fewer farms collected more federal payments even though language in the farm bill promised just five to seven years of support.  

U.S. Rep. Sam Graves says his profession is “farmer.” But he’s stepped off the Ag Committee to take a seat on Commerce. Is that an indication of ag’s declining political importance?
The importance of limiting monetary support when subsidizing individuals can be illustrated in simple farm terms. Dad always fed big hogs separately from piglets. The bigger the hog the more space he occupies at the trough. Pretty soon there’s nothing left for the little guys. 

The government would make a lousy hog farmer. 

These days if you’re part of the overall farm minority, latest news out of Washington hasn’t been so good. It took all the king’s horses, all of his men and every major farm organization in the country more than two years to put a new farm bill together again. Farm state senators led by Sen. Debbie Stabenow took a stab at it, while Majority Leader Boehner’s folks in the House dragged their feet. 

With so many farm organizations taking pride in their conservative ties, it was a stinging defeat … or comeuppance … when the Republican-heavy House refused to act on behalf of what seemed a sacred partnership. 

In my own Congressional district, Congressman Sam Graves represents the most Republican parts of Northern Missouri. Sam has always called himself a farmer by profession. Now Sam has taken leave from the Ag Committee to chair the Committee on Commerce. That news caused me to raise an eyebrow. 

The congressman’s switch took place just about the time ag interests missed their first farm-bill deadline. I took that as a signal of agriculture on the wane in Washington.  The slow pace of farm bill adoption seems to back that up.

In the end if there was a political winner, it was grass roots groups like National Farmers Union (NFU), which spearheaded efforts to retain country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meats and poultry. Corporate meat-packer interests fronted by conservative producers have been outspoken to the point of name calling against their opposition. That’s why NFU, their state affiliates and NFU allies feared COOL might disappear behind closed-door reconciliation. That never happened, thanks mostly to sustained pressure from family-farm groups like us. 

Conservative farm groups have been the biggest losers this year. They failed when Congress didn’t deliver a timely farm bill to one set of constituents, and failed to kill country-of-origin labeling for corporate contributors. 

But most of all, once again, they failed their own shrinking rural base. 

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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