The Daily Yonder's coverage of rural economic issues, including workforce development and the future of work in rural America, is supported in part by Microsoft.
It is interesting to me how well the country has done over the last eight years when the administration of President Obama literally began with one congressman’s televised insult to the president during his first State of the Union address in early 2009.
Speaking as a farmer, the last eight years might have been worse. Many of the problems I faced were brought about either by a balky Congress determined to do nothing that could reflect well on the administration, or to enduring and timeless government agencies whose ranks have been salted with special interests and political corporate appointments.
And the weather has been difficult too.
Most of the time average rainfall is about the same as always these days. But rains are further apart and larger amounts fall in shorter periods of time. Growing seasons are lengthening. Northern states where 60 days was once about all they could count on to grow wheat, barley, or oats are growing corn that takes nearly twice as long to mature.
That’s helping to drive down the prices of things I grow even as it gets harder to grow them.
Some people are mad at President Obama for talking about that type of changing climate and other matters such as rising sea levels, higher and higher king tides, and salt water encroachment into Florida’s fresh water supplies fed by melting polar ice caps.
Unfortunately, not talking about it won’t make it go away.
Over the last eight years I have been puzzled by farmer colleagues who failed to acknowledge that the existence of renewable energy and biofuels is because President Obama’s plan survived an onslaught of vilification by big-oil funded congressional opposition.
The same farmers who cuss the Environmental Protection Agency for trying to protect clean water and air cussed them also for delaying a ruling on EPA mandates for blended gasoline that hold huge ramifications for most cornbelt farms.
The EPA said repeatedly over the last year that they were reviewing the rule, but they eventually left unchanged, in spite of the fact that ethanol from cheap corn undermines development of more costly second generation biofuels like cellulosic ethanol. Now the political earth has shifted: Petroleum refiners and renewable-fuel supporters aligned together in favor of the EPA rules. They are also together in opposing Valero, which refines both oil and renewable fuel and operates retail outlets. Valero is attempting to alter the rules by petitioning EPA and the courts to require retailers, not refiners, to mix oil-based and renewable fuels together into the blend consumers buy at the pump.
That could make it more difficult and costly to sell ethanol.
The Obama administration defended the top priority of U.S. corn growers from some of the same interests many farmers are now convinced will help them. But stay tuned, because big oil has taken an oversized presence in the incoming administration. This battle over blending could take on another form in a few months as big oil takes another run at rescinding renewable energy mandates.
The farm bill that will be written next year may be another example of misplaced hope. President Obama is to blame in many people’s minds for the current market collapse of so many farm products that a new farm bill would help alleviate. But farm bills come largely from Congressional Ag committees fed information and dollars from political action committees, producer groups (with input from USDA), and corporations. In some people’s minds, that counts against President Obama.
Vertically integrated agriculture continues its march forward, gaining more control of markets much to the detriment of farmers and ranchers. And consumers don’t have a clue. The one area where Obama, the Department of Agriculture, Secretary Tom Vilsack, and the Department of Justice really let us down was anti-trust enforcement. Finally USDA has conveniently just published their revival of GIPSA rules after eight years of study just as they prepare to hand over power to the new big business oriented Trump Administration.
Some people believe the Trump Administration will turn their backs on big packers and side with contract poultry farmers and cowboys . But front runner for Ag Secretary, democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, seems ill equipped for dealing with President elect Trump and his most recent cabinet appointments who look more like a who’s who of the power elite than populist reformists.
Anyone who’s watched “the Apprentice” knows that “tenure” is just a five-letter word for “you’re fired”.
Good luck, senator.
As an example of corporate power in any administration, early in the Obama administration, USDA tried to implement mandatory federal animal and premise identification for every livestock producer in the nation. USDA responded by holding listening sessions around the country where farmers and ranchers repeatedly testified against such over-reaching regulation. Interestingly, conservative farm organizations remained quiet on the subject, while more populist groups and individuals gave animated testimony in opposition. One reason we suspected USDA was proposing such regulation was so that the packers, whose flawed handling of ground beef resulted in e-coli-tainted products on far too many occasions, could shift liability to farms by tracing bacteria back to them.
Packers never lost much money on recalled products because most weren’t recalled until after they had been purchased and consumed. However, regulations such as what were proposed could have indemnified corporate meat handlers. More imports of beef from areas where many of the livestock diseases we have eradicated are still present was another reason for wanting a way to trace animals back to American farms.
Only this time, the animal identification program would protect America’s livestock and corporate profits from infected corporate imports.
It was Congress, not President Obama, who honored decisions of world trade courts with no American presence on the bench. Most large farm groups like Farm Bureau and National Cattlemens Beef Association support free-trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA, and TPP. Those groups said little when, due to preexisting trade agreements, Secretary Vilsack opened our borders to Brazilian beef even though Brazil has a presence of old-timey livestock diseases like hoof-and-mouth disease that have been eradicated here.
Congress, not President Obama, repealed country-of-origin labeling for beef, which threatened to expose to public scrutiny the quality of corporate meat coming into the country. Now U.S. beef producers are forced to compete with South American beef as well as other countries of origin. A study by agriculture economist Robert Taylor has shown it isn’t the presence of foreign beef in U.S. markets that has currently rendered beef unprofitable on American family farms and ranches. The problem is we cannot tell our consuming public which beef is the safest and which beef is ours.
Imagine if corporations in charge of food controlled our water, too.
These days U.S. agriculture is wildly optimistic that President-elect Trump will fix all that ails us. FYI: What it will take to make farmers happy is a bigger safety net and more money.
But Congress remains fractured by three major factions: Republicans, tea party Republicans, and Democrats of many persuasions. Some want to split ag funding away from other USDA budgets. Some want to do away with entitlement-spending altogether. Some want to end all farm programs including crop insurance and renewable fuels.
Some want to do away with USDA entirely.
Chuck Connor, a former USDA undersecretary who is now working on Trump’s transitions team, was quoted as saying, “We’re not expecting to have enormous resources in the next farm bill.” That’s because proposed tax cuts on the table would increase the budget deficit by $600 billion per year.
That puts farm spending on a chopping block at a time when farmers need it to increase.
This is the same scenario we had last time when it took two years to pass the current farm bill. For me, it’s also what makes construction and passage of the 2018 farm bill about as scary as walking through a haunted house at midnight during an earthquake and a thunderstorm.
Most frightening of all is that costs on all farms have increased as returns have declined. The difference in those two is stark. Today, more costs are controlled by corporations just as our returns are too. They sell to us and they buy our wares.
The president-elect has preserved and grown his wealth partly through the strategic use of bankruptcy. Farmer bankruptcies may end their financial suffering, but it also takes them off the map forever.
Today’s agricultural economy is different in many ways from other times when government support was required. Family farms raising livestock, dairy, and grain have never dealt with so many potential challenges as we do today. Collapse can be swift. And farms do not rise like a phoenix from the ashes of financial failure.
They are done for good.
In their place will be a more concentrated, less transparent food supply controlled by a few big multinationals operating on a scale never before seen in food production.
Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union.