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President’s message

By Dave Carter

Spring is a time of optimism across the rural West . . . at least in most years.

As the recent moisture and warming sun starts to paint the countryside green this spring, farmers and ranchers find themselves up against some nearly insurmountable odds. Commodity prices seem wedged at historic low prices. Diesel fuel, interest rates and other input costs are climbing, and a shrinking number of agribusiness giants continue to tighten their grip on the marketplace.

But some folks just cannot resist the optimism of springtime.

Take, for example, Dr. Barry Flinchbaugh, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. Dr. Flinchbaugh says that things couldn’t be better in farm country. “The truth of the matter is that 1999 is roughly tied with 1997 as the second highest net farm income year on record,” Dr. Flinchbaugh said a couple of weeks ago. “There are individual farmers in trouble. That is always true, but U.S. agriculture, in the aggregate, had a good year in 1999.”

Who is this guy, anyway?

In some corners, the conjecture of an ag economist wouldn’t make much impact. But Dr. Flinchbuagh carries a little more clout. The 1996 Farm bill was written largely in the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, which was chaired then by Rep. Pat Roberts, R-KS. Then-Rep. Roberts relied heavily upon the advice of none other than Dr. Barry Flinchbaugh during the drafting of that bill. Consequently, Barry’s fingerprints are all over the 1996 Farm Bill.

Now, Dr. Flinchbaugh is heading up the Federal Commission on 21st Century Agriculture, which has been charged with the task of analyzing the results of the 1996 Farm Bill.

And that is why his comments are so dangerous. In one sense, Dr. Flinchbaugh is correct: the 1999 net farm income of $48.1 billion ranks as the second highest in history. But $22.7 billion of that came to producers in the form of government payments, including the $8.9 billion in emergency assistance provided last fall. When you subtract the government payments, operating farm income last year was the lowest in a decade . . . and this year is expected to be even lower.

Agricultural producers traveled to Washington D.C. each of the last two years to request emergency assistance to stave off an economic catastrophe. If Congress had not opened the purse strings, the countryside would be in the midst of economic chaos this spring.

A few weeks ago, nearly 3,000 producers showed up on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C. to demand something better than annual emergency assistance. Those producers want an immediate overhaul of the 1996 Farm Bill, and they want solid action taken to address the onerous economic concentration in the agricultural industry.

The House Agriculture Committee is now holding hearings around the country to accept ideas for improvements in federal farm policy. Pat Roberts is gone from that committee, and the new chair, Rep. Larry Combest, R-TX, recognizes that changes need to be made now.

On the Senate side, Democrats Bob Kerry of Nebraska and Tim Johnson of South Dakota have teamed up with Republicans Craig Thomas of Wyoming and Charles Grassley of Iowa to introduce legislation to prohibit ownership of live animals by meatpacking companies. This packer-ownership, commonly known as captive supply, is considered one of the major factors harming the competitive livestock marketplace. The Senators’ bill would bring a welcome breath of air back into the livestock markets.

Perhaps there is plenty of reason for optimism this spring. Congress has the power to improve federal farm policy, and to address the problem of concentration. We have the power to hold them accountable. It is, after all, an election year.