American Farmers, Junkyard Sculptors
With corn prices higher than normal, is it time to quit supporting the "junkyard sculptors" who’ve scraped by on the farm? Richard Oswald explains why the artful stewards of the land deserve a strong farm bill.
American farms are good at getting by. We always enjoy earning a bountiful harvest even though bounty may depreciate the value of our products. When the bounty is too great we become Junkyard Sculptors, taking what no one seems to want and making it into something a collector will cherish.
We have always created surplus for creative people to utilize. In the old days, Granddad used leftover corncobs for road surfacing and corn-shucks for livestock bedding, while Grandmother sewed clothing from feed sacks and stuffed pillows with the feathers from Sunday’s dinner. Biofuels are a good example of today’s junkyard art, as are biodegradable plastics, fabrics, and even printer’s ink. They are creations from our leftover grain.
A lot of the research and development funding that helped create these junkyard sculptures came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture via the farm bill. The farm bill also helps keep farmers on the land by providing loan funds to the Farm Service Agency (FmHA) and the Commodity Credit Corporation. While loans from these agencies count against the cost of the farm bill, they are eventually repaid with interest, making their actual cost much less than official budgets imply.
Beginning-farmer programs take something we normally discard from the farm, young people, and turn them into a useful agricultural “product" by making flexible loans for farmland, equipment, and operating expenses. These are not loans that are simple to qualify for. There are very real and stringent guidelines to be followed, and all the FmHA staff people I have ever known take the regulations very seriously. As one friend once said of our local FmHA Supervisor, “He can be a stickler for the rules, but when times are tough, it’s kind of nice to have him there to hide behind."
Tractor seat "butterfly" by Wally Keller
Photo: Dane Co., Wisconsin, Cultural Tour
Now that farm prices for grain are higher than usual, it would be easy to say that agriculture no longer needs a place to hide…or junkyard sculptors. But we should remember that the costlier the Cadillac, the more valuable the parts. The farm bill has built some Cadillac farms with parts that are now interchangeable for food, energy, and industry.
America needs continued funding for its beginning and financially troubled farmers. The federal program has worked for decades by placing and keeping people on the land. Though some commercial lenders may say that government lending programs are no longer needed or called for, the country is sometimes a tough place to live: a place filled with hungry junkyard dogs. Any morsel that helps hold the hounds at bay makes survival possible.
There are many titles in the farm bill that actually cost the taxpayer very little and offer food security in return; lending authority to novice and struggling farmers is one. Others are Country of Origin Labeling, rural development aimed toward real economic development for small communities, and conservation security that protects resources and the environment. It doesn’t take an artistic genius to see the potential in these programs because of what they return to the taxpayer and the nation. It would help if more citizens called their Congressman or Senator to point out that we don’t need to junk farm bills — we need legislation that the people can admire.