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“How low can you go?”

By Dave Carter

“How low can you go?”

It seems that many people are chanting this along with the limbo dancers while sipping pina coladas as they cruise the Caribbean on profits reaped from their latest stock investment.

Farmers and ranchers, however, mutter those words each time they check the market prices for their commodities.

Four years ago, Congress took a wrecking ball to the system of federal farm programs that had guided American agriculture since the late 1930’s. The 1996 Farm Bill they created was intended to usher in a new era of opportunity for agricultural producers. One architect of that plan, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN) proclaimed at the time, “(Freedom to Farm) is clearly a new direction. It will reduce federal spending and federal deficits with certainty. It will reform farm programs and give them both certainty and much greater simplicity, and it will prepare U.S. agriculture for what promises to be a very exciting new century.” Over the past two years, the prices received for most bellwether farm commodities have crashed through floors that most producers never thought could be broken.

The national average price for wheat sank to $2.50 per bushel as the combines moved across the Great Plains this summer. Five years ago, that same bushel of wheat sold for $4.55. Corn prices likewise have fallen from $3.24 per bushel in 1995 to $1.65 this month.

So, how does the 1996 Farm Bill seem to be working so far?

With nearly a year’s worth of wheat now in storage, few producers expect the prices to climb out of the doldrums anytime soon.

Promoters of the 1996 Farm Bill bemoan that the collapse of the Southeast Asian economy threw a wrench into the works of the Freedom to Farm approach. In reality, however, the 1.2 billion bushels of wheat slated for export this year nearly parallels the export volume of 1995, and will be more than 200 million bushels above the volume exported in 1996-97.

So, how does the 1996 Farm Bill seem to be working so far?

The rosy scenarios about reducing the cost of farm programs seem to be a little off the mark as well. Freedom to Farm, in fact, has notched the honor of serving as the most expensive farm bill in history. Last year, for example, the direct federal payments comprised nearly half of the nation’s $43.5 billion net farm income. In 1996, farmers earned $54.9 billion in net farm income, with only $7.3 billion comprised of government payments.

So, how does the 1996 Farm Bill seem to be working so far?

Not worth a darn, thank you very much.

All of these big numbers get confusing. Let’s talk instead about some numbers that everyone can understand. Two cents, for example.

At a recent field hearing of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, one Representative commented that he wanted to hear the “farmers’ two cents worth” on the need to change the farm bill.

Let’s make sure Congress has an opportunity to hear the two cents worth. Literally.

Farmers need to send their members of Congress two cents worth of the commodities they produce. In a bag, box or barrel, those commodities can visually illustrate the low prices that are devastating farm and ranch families across the nation.

Sure, sending in two cents worth of a commodity is a little gimmicky, but it is time to make a point. Some agricultural groups are actually urging Congress to “stay the course” on the 1996 Farm Bill. Independent producers, meanwhile, need to send a message that it is time to throw in the towel on a failed farm policy, and to create a new direction based upon stability, reliability, and profitability.

Let’s give Congress our two cents worth.