There have been loads of rumors about which party is standing up for rural interests. Let's look at the record before pledging political allegiance.
The best explanation I’ve heard for why the world didn’t end last month according to Mayan prophecy is that “every calendar has a beginning and end” — when the last page is torn off, we just enter a new era.
If it ain’t the end of the world then maybe it’s just time to turn the page.
Some saw the end of days even earlier, in November, when President Barack Obama was reelected to his second term. I don’t really think he’s that bad for us, but a lot of people here do. Mainly, the Obama-phobes said he was going to regulate farm dust and make it impossible for farm kids to do their chores.
Well, the Environmental Protection Agency farm-dust rules never happened. According to administration officials, the rules were never even planned.
And the child labor regulations were meant to safeguard the children of migrant workers but gained attention when some said these laws would apply to family farms, where farm kids do chores every day. The whole thing was widely publicized as an attack on middle America. Some farm groups helped promote the rumor. But the child labor regulations never were put into effect either.
Obama was even going to take our guns away. After the election, panic sales of firearms tripled; gun shops hung up pictures of the 44th president and named him “Top Gun Seller of the Year.” Now the National Rifle Association has proposed placing armed guards in schools. This doesn’t look like gun control to me.
Obama Administration policies have given lip service and even some economic help to rural communities during the last four years. The final frontier of rural industry, ethanol, was rescued from pro big-oil Republicans by none other than Obama. Obama had a rural jobs agenda, farm-to-table food projects, a plan for conservation, even a promise, albeit broken, to enforce laws in favor of more competition in agriculture markets.
And while most Democrats pushed for a five-year farm bill in September of this year before the election (which is normally the very best time to write any farm-friendly bill), Republicans dragged their feet and promoted deep cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget.
Most of USDA’s budget goes toward feeding poor and disadvantaged people: the elderly, retired people whose Social Security doesn’t provide enough, kids of poor parents, and schoolchildren. Even though we benefit from the USDA food programs, big swaths of rural America supported cuts to them by voting Republican, even though rural people and their communities rely on these programs as much or more than big cities.
Even some conservative farm groups supported cutting entitlements in the USDA budget. In return for that, urban Republicans — the conservatives who don’t normally have much good to say about USDA’s ag programs — implied that Congress should leave its hands off most of ag’s measly 2 percent of the USDA budget.
In the end the farm bill was derailed mostly by Republicans, with a little help from House Democrats from more conservative districts. Nothing much happened until well after the election when Congress drove us to the edge of the fiscal cliff. Once the brakes were on, Congress included a nine-month extension of the old farm bill, which takes us to September.
That could be very bad for agriculture. One reason is that after all the talk against public entitlements from USDA, Congress continued direct payments to what is commonly referred to these days as “production agriculture.” With those big farms experiencing an unprecedented period of good prices, giving them payments originally intended to bolster profits in times of low prices amounts to an unneeded, unjustified entitlement. It’s money we didn’t earn and don’t really need.
Now, even though many of us didn’t want the direct payments, farms have put themselves on the hit list with welfare moms and deadbeat dads. What’s worse, when the issue is revisited in midterm, between elections, our ability to influence the outcome of the farm bill will be at low ebb.
We lobbied for a farm bill last September, and we’ll be doing it again this September. A friend of mine told me that farm group lobbying for a new five-year bill is going to cost twice what the last lobbying effort did. It is unprecedented.
Once Congress returns from its August recess, the issue of farm entitlements will surely come up. It could be an embarrassment. While my group, the Farmers Union, will surely call a halt to direct payments, we’ll lobby for devoting those savings to a permanent disaster bill and helping family dairy farmers into profitable businesses as we did last year, even though conservative Southern farmers may be part of the opposition who want the handout to continue.
Missouri has been one of the states leaning more toward conservative policies. Rural areas here seem to be mostly Republican, by a margin of two to one. Even after Democrats championed many important rural issues, our citizens continued to support “anybody but Obama.” I’m sure the newly re-elected administration has noticed that its support for issues considered important to us did not equal more votes in November.
The political reality for any office holder is generating campaign dollars and translating those into votes. Yet many farm groups support conservative ag-budget-buster candidates, ignoring Democratic champions. I think that’s mostly because they prefer to listen to unjustified claims against the political left for things like dust rules, child labor, gun owner rights, and abortion.
Rural Americans’ inability to judge issues clearly on the facts has allowed political campaigns based mostly on rhetoric to pass judgment for them.
If the next farm bill goes badly for us the second time it’s taken up, it will be another year before we can make ourselves known at the ballot box. Even then, our failure to focus on our own best interests combined with low voter turnout could amount to too little, too late.
By the time we start looking for old support again, after the way we’ve voted in two elections, that help might not come from anybody. Not even Obama.
Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.