State Lawmakers Concerned About Lack of Focus on Farm Issues

 

Farmers may be wondering if there's room left in the "new economy" for them after listening to the nation's governors deliver their State of the State addresses this year.

The state of American agriculture garnered barely a mention amid all the talk about commitments to education, technology development, and holding the line on government spending.

Only three governors -- Judy Martz of Montana, Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho and John Hoeven of North Dakota -- devoted much time to it. The farm issue was pushed to the back burner by most governors, which may be one reason, some legislators say, the farm policy coming out of Washington is still a mess.

"It is very disturbing when the governors don't mention a word about agriculture when it's the number 1 industry here and in a lot of other states," says North Carolina State Sen. Charles Albertson. "We've got to find a way to bring some interest and concern about this topic to our representatives and senators in Congress...and to the American people. But we can't do that if nobody's talking about it."

Albertson, who recently served on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Small Farm Commission, believes that a lack of knowledge about agriculture issues on the part of politicians in Washington and the state capitals is helping fuel the nation's current farm crisis.

Farmers are being squeezed by low commodity prices, stiff competition abroad and horrible weather conditions. And watershed legislation passed in 1996 designed to wean the farm industry from traditional federal subsidies over a seven-year period has only made the situation worse in many areas of the country, some state lawmakers say.

The Freedom to Farm Act, which authorized $36 billion in fixed payments to farmers through 2002, has benefited larger farm and ranch operators, and the huge conglomerates that control most of today's U.S. agriculture market. They still receive the lion's share of government payments.

But critics say it has helped to hasten the end of business for thousands of small farmers by not providing enough transition money to help them through the downturns. As a result, many have been forced to give up their way of life altogether or have had to take second jobs to compensate for production losses.

"Our trend in Indiana is the same as the rest of the country - farms are getting larger and the smaller folks are being forced into other off-farm sources of income," says Indiana State Rep. Bill Friend, who makes his living as a hog producer.Like Albertson, Friend says he's concerned that the plight of the small farmer has been ignored to a large extent by state chief executives and the nation's lawmakers.

"We're such a small percentage of the population that our political clout has diminished," Friend says. "We're not as important as we used to be. And I don't think that's going to change until that day when people start to get hungry and the stores aren't able to stock items."

Though it's difficult to tell how many small farmers (those who own 25 to several hundred acres) have quit the business since Freedom to Farm took effect, government records indicate that nearly 6,000 of the nation's nearly 2.2 million farms were either sold or gobbled up by larger operations between 1996 and 1999.

Farm sales or closings were more prevalent in the farm belt regions of the Midwest and South than in other parts of the country. Records show, for example, that the number of farms in Iowa shrank by 3,000 farms, dropping from 99,000 to 96,000. Indiana farms decreased from 66,000 in 1996 to 65,000 in 1999. Minnesota and Wisconsin each lost 1,000 farms during the same period, dropping from 82,000 to 81,000 and 79,000 to 78,000 respectively.

In the South, Alabama dipped from 49,000 to 48,000. Maryland, which is listed by the U.S. Agriculture Department as a southern state, went from 13,700 to 12,400, and North Carolina dropped from 59,000 to 58,000.

Across the country thousands more farmers have been pushed into contracting with larger producers, which some farmers describe as "corporate sharecropping," or have been left to figure out how to develop niche markets to survive.

Across the country farmers who opt for staying small in a business that is increasingly more competitive haven't gotten much help from the states. Some aggressive programs aimed at assisting farmers in finding new markets for their products have been established in Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota and a few other states. In Indiana, for example, some farms that once grew corn and soybeans are now being turned into vineyards. Their grapes will be marketed to winemakers.

More unique programs, such as Maryland's tobacco buyout, encourage farmers to grow other crops.

But at a time when state budgets are again shrinking, aid for such programs has been hard to come by. And most governors seem to be more committed to finding work in the new economy for farm families than keeping them on the farm.

For example, while acknowledging the importance of the farm economy in his recent State of the State address, Gov. Hoeven of North Dakota spoke repeatedly about the necessity of creating innovative "technology -based business services."

"Farming, ranching and energy production will remain critical to the creation of good jobs, but they are not the only source of employment now," Hoeven said, expressing a view shared by most governors. "We are targeting new industries that will bring new wealth and new people to the state. There is a New Economy, and North Dakota must be part of it."

Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, is all in favor of creating new jobs for the new economy. But he cautions that the continued loss of traditional farm jobs will hasten the breakdown of rural communities dependent on agriculture for their survival. Daschle, a leading critic of the '96 farm bill, still believes the federal government has a vital role to play in ensuring that the nation's farm communities are protected. While the farm bill may have been intended to make farmers more efficient and competitive by reducing Washington's role, the senator contends it was a disaster because it was built on the false assumption that U.S. agriculture would remain as healthy as other sectors of the economy.

"We all agree that the federal government shouldn't be in the business of micro-managing agriculture," Daschle said in a recent speech to the National Farmers Union. "That does not mean, however, that government should leave farmers and ranchers to face agriculture's risks alone. No sector of our economy is left entirely to the mercy of the free market. No sector could survive like that."

The Freedom to Farm Act is up for renewal in 2002. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman told governors at their recent meeting in Washington she plans to fight for an added "safety net" and other provisions that will enable farmers -- big and small -- to compete more effectively in the global market.

But her idea of a "safety net" is not spelled out in the 2002 budget submitted to Congress last week by President Bush, whose proposal would cut agriculture spending from $19.4 billion in the current fiscal year to $17.9 billion next year. The cuts aren't what Texas Congressman Charles Stenholm, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, has in mind when he talks about ensuring that small, low-income farmers who want to stay on the land will be able to do so.

Stenholm, a leading voice in Congress on farm issues, wants subsidies to be there whenever the market changes or when unpredictable weather causes losses. He believes that Congress and the administration have to agree on a reasonable safety net that guarantees small operators at least a minimum standard of living. He would prefer that a formula be worked out allowing farmers to get more of the U.S. consumer dollar for their products, or that the administration does a better job of negotiating world trade deals. But he does not rule out the possibility of continuing direct government payments.

"We have to, through cooperative efforts, find a way to get more of the consumer dollar paid to farmers. Whether you call it a safety net or whatever, we've got to do that," Stenholm said.

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman authorized a study in 1999 of the safety net issue. Completed last October, it failed to make any specific recommendations. But it noted that "current direct government payments to farmers do not generally benefit the lowest income farmers but instead go to the most well-off."

That has been one of the biggest complaints about the '96 bill. Most of the payments were to be decreased or phased out entirely by the time the legislation expires next year with the goal being to make U.S. agriculture more market dependent. But a combination of factors, such as bad weather, over production of key crops worldwide, and an economic depression in Asia and other markets has forced Congress to allocate much more than planned in supplemental payments and emergency disaster aid.

Last year alone, government payments accounted for 52 percent of U.S. farm income. With the prospect for improvements not looking much better this year, many lawmakers are rethinking the idea of phasing out government assistance.

State agriculture officials were in Washington last week lobbying for their own changes in the bill.

Larry Gabriel, South Dakota's secretary of agriculture, acknowledged that the '96 measure has a lot of "very popular" provisions in it, especially those that eliminate acreage allotments and give farmers more freedom to plant different crops. Overall, he says the bill has forced farmers to become more innovative, not only about what they produce but how they market it.

Still, he says the bill failed to anticipate long periods of depressed prices and unfair trade practices in the world market. And, he adds, the legislation created more problems by encouraging farmers to produce more than the markets could bear.

"We really are in a dilemma here," he said. "We're not going back (to guaranteed subsidies)...The question is how do we come up with a farm bill that's profitable and flexible for farmers."

 
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