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1996 farm bill belongs in museum

By Dave Carter

I understand a museum has opened to commemorate some of history’s worst inventions. The Edsel is prominently displayed in the lobby. I’m sure New Coke and Crystal Pepsi also occupy places of honor.

I just hope they save a spot for the 1996 Farm Bill.

The 1996 Farm Bill, you may recall, was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress concerned that decades of federal price supports and acreage reduction programs had sapped the vitality from American agriculture. The Freedom to Farm approach they enacted was intended to unshackle producers’ ability to thrive in the emerging competitive global marketplace.

Yeah, and New Coke was supposed to taste good, too.

Anyone who has drilled a kernel of wheat into the High Plains soil over the past five years knows that this farm bill has amounted to nothing less than an absolute disaster. Only a series of annual disaster appropriations from Congress have staved off a wholesale exodus from American agriculture.

As if the failure weren’t already obvious, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in January that 2001 farm incomes would drop another 10 percent without another round of federal assistance. So, what will the Congress do this year? Freedom to Farm does not officially expire until next year, but the House Agriculture Committee is convening hearings on the farm bill in early February. Debate is raging among committee members concerning whether those hearings will result in new legislation this year, or whether they are a warm-up for the real debate in 2002.

Though nearly every member of the Agriculture Committee acknowledges Freedom to Farm’s failings, some who helped draft the bill five years ago are reluctant to bury it before it expires. C’mon folks, even though Henry Ford named the Edsel after his son, he didn’t hesitate to pull the plug when the car bombed in the marketplace.

Just as interesting as the congressional debate is the discussion raging among agricultural organizations. One large organization just completed its national convention with a policy advocating that the next farm bill should direct the bulk of financial support to the nation’s handful of largest operations. Wait a minute…aren’t these the operations that are supposed to be the most efficient? Why, then, do only the large farms deserve to enjoy a federal safety net?

Some commodity groups, meanwhile, continue to cling to the belief that unfettered free trade policies are the financial salvation for American agriculture. Those groups haven’t shared with the rest of us how American farmers and ranchers can prosper in a marketplace where we compete with countries that exploit human labor, ignore environmental concerns, and only loosely monitor health and safety regulations.

Policymakers sitting down to draft the next farm bill need to recognize that urban consumers, rural communities, and the nation’s agricultural producers will be best served by a policy that fosters stability rather than volatility. The next farm policy needs to help producers bring the annual output of crops and livestock into line with actual demand. If maintaining a food reserve is in the best interest of this nation, then the farm bill should subsidize that cost.

If protecting soil and water resources are an important national goal, then federal farm policy should provide the financial incentives to compensate producers through a multi-year set-aside. If an agricultural system composed of many diversified agricultural operations best stimulates the rural economy, then the new farm bill should appropriately target benefits to the first units of production from any operation.

And, if government policymakers truly want farmers to compete in the new marketplace, the next farm bill needs to target significant resources to help producers organize new cooperatives and other types of locally based value-added businesses.

Congress can get it right. After all, the same company that hatched the Edsel also gave us the Mustang a decade later.