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Looking for solutions

By Tom Lauridson, Ph. D.

Thanks in part to the National Farmers Union rally in March, Congress has been put on notice that rural America is headed in the opposite direction of the rest of the national economy. However, having Congress’ attention hardly solves the problem . . . so now the hard work begins; we have to seek solutions.

We in rural America have to decide what we want federal farm policy to look like in the coming years. As bad as times may seem to be for rural America, we have the opportunity to decide what is important to us and our future.

Federal action is going to determine a lot of the future for our rural way of life. For example, are we willing to accept reduced production in the form of voluntary setasides and/or reserve programs such as CRP and WRP? Or do we wish to hammer our global competition and build market share of world grain trade with a Loan Deficiency Payment program with higher price targets? How about risk insurance?

Farm programs have impacts much larger than upon crop farmers alone. Everybody remembers the effect of large CRP enrollment on some areas – a number of rural communities lost local businesses and farm population. Setasides push up grain prices . . . but to the disadvantage of livestock producers. However, Loan Deficiency Program dollars tend to help bigger farmers more than small ones, and can cost the federal government large and unpredictable amounts of money; and, they don’t help the farmer that has had a crop failure.

As for crop risk insurance, can we in the farm community accept that some our neighbors may cheat on insurance claims (bad enough!)? And by doing so, put farmers and farm programs in a bad light?

Each approach to farm policy has disadvantages. I’ve only touched on three of the more likely ideas to be passed – lots more program ideas are still out there for consideration. Because I’m certainly not qualified to recommend one policy over any other, what is the point of bringing all this up?

Clearly, we in rural America are at a real turning point. We’ve seen that no farm policy (Freedom to Farm) is flatly unacceptable, and in the end, about the most costly and foolish approach to food security of all. So we all agree that some kind of farm policy that includes a safety net is not just nice but absolutely necessary.

We in the country have to decide what our priorities are for the future, and communicate what those priorities are to decision makers in Congress and USDA. After all, farm policy can determine how fast the farm population declines; how easy young people can enter and stay in farming; how well we are able to be stewards of the land God gave us; how much farm land is lost to development; how rural communities can maintain their schools, businesses, and populations; and, how we interact with our customers (all those people that eat food all over the world).

We’ve got some real work ahead in the next couple years. We have to evaluate the prospective farm programs in light of our priorities. We need to demand to see how each proposal is likely to affect all the different parts of the farm economy and how they stack up to our priorities. And finally, we need to tell Congress, in a levelheaded fashion, which program or programs meet our priorities the best.

Farmers Union members have a unique opportunity to have input, because Farmers Union has much more credibility in Congress than the organizations that supported Freedom to Farm. And some of the most innovative and well-received ideas for the next farm bill have come from Farmers Union members.

Let’s make the next farm bill reflect our priorities and values.