Oregon FFA

John Swenson with his lamb, before taking it to the Curry County Fair in Oregon.
Photo: Randy Olson, via Washington Post

Here at the little house on the river bottom, outside of Langdon, my wife has a trumpet vine problem in her flowerbeds.

Linda likes flowers. We have wild flowers, geraniums, petunias, roses, hyacinth, yucca, cornflowers, and a bunch of others I can’t begin to name. Linda never met a flower she didn’t like — until she planted trumpet vine.

It all started with a couple of trellises that the roses just weren’t in the mood to climb, so she planted the trumpet vine there. There simply weren’t any other plants in her garden willing to do the work she wanted done. At first it was great. The vine grew and bloomed, covering the trellises and the arbor.

Mission accomplished.

But the vine kept growing.

It took over the corn flowers. Next it crept along to the yucca and the lilac bush. It engulfed the roses. When she finally realized all the harm the runaway vine was doing in the garden, it was wrapping itself around the whiskey barrel planter where the miniature petunias and coleus were planted.

trumpet vine

Some things are sacred. Threatening the whiskey barrel was the last straw. When we started trying to extract the vine from all the other plants, we realized we had let it go far too long. Almost everything but the trumpet vine was stunted — or worse. If we hadn’t acted to uproot it, the ecology of the flowerbed would have been ruined and only the trumpet vine would have remained.

The trumpet vine trimmed — and the whiskey barrel saved.
Photo: Richard Oswald

When Congress passed the 1996 farm bill, it promised to be a beautiful thing. The new bill gave some farmers a safety net of sorts. And for the first time farmers had a little bit of planting flexibility without acreage setasides. But some producers thought we needed something better. So the call went out to increase the size of payment limits.

That was when we planted the trumpet vine in the garden.

At first it was great. Some farms grew very fast, and covered all the extra acres freed up by the 1996 bill, called Freedom to Farm. Back then, before the recent rise in commodity prices, the rule of thumb was that a grain farm’s net income was about equal to its federal payments. Farms with $70,000 in federal payments had net income of $70,000. Farmers were producing at cost and the federal government paid our living.

Top Counties For Income Growth
These are the top ten percent of 3100 U.S. counties in income growth from 1995 to 2005. Rural counties are in red. The large numbers of rural counties with large income growth in the Great Plains is a result of increasing federal farm payments after the passage of the 1996 Freedom to Farm bill.
Chart: Mark Drabenstott

But, the bigger the farm, the bigger the federal payments. Also, the bigger the farm, the cheaper the seed and the other things a farmer buys. Aggressive farmers realized the system rewarded ever-larger operations with lower costs and higher federal payments. All at little risk. So some farmers used that advantage aggressively to gain control of an ever-growing segment of the available productive land, either through attrition (as farmers gave up or retired), cash rent, or outright purchase. Farms got bigger as smaller producers were consumed by a system driven by federal payments.

Low grain prices made corporate livestock operations flourish. Livestock operators couldn’t possibly grow all the feed they needed, so as grain became cheaper, more and more government help flowed from the Treasury to grain farmers while livestock feeders got the advantage of prices below the cost of production. As agribusiness gradually replaced family farms, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and many in Congress admired the way big business bloomed and covered the land.

Meanwhile, however, throughout the tenure of the 1996 and 2002 farm bills, the average American farmer has continued to age to the point that he is now nearly 57 years old. That’s me. I’m an average farmer. But the consequence of the last two farm bills is that young farmers have never been fewer than they are today. Young farmers have been crowded away from the land.

The programs passed in the last two farm bills have had exactly opposite impacts on agribusiness and rural communities. Large farms have grown larger under current policies. But our small rural communities have continued to decline, struggling with basic issues like jobs and health care. The average rural per capita income now lags the urban average by nearly 28 percent.

The trouble in rural America is that our garden is being choked by one voracious plant.


The House version of the 2007 farm bill offers to rectify the situation by taking payments from millionaires. But pulling Manhattan millionaires with legitimate Midwestern investments from the payment rolls is like pruning the trumpet vine from where it belongs, on the trellis. After all, being in possession of money is no reason to curtail payments aimed at stabilizing the farm economy. And, besides, taking payments from the wealthy whose prosperity may stem from other sources doesn’t address the problem: the unlimited expansion of large farms paid for with federal funds. Busting a few Upper East Side “farmers�? may make people feel better, but it doesn’t confront the effect the crop subsidy program has had on working farms and rural communities.

What will future farmers do once they leave the FFA?
Photo: FFA

Through times of low prices, large farms have been well supported. Now that grain prices have improved, most of the payments everyone is talking about are a moot point. (Grain prices remain well above USDA guarantees.) Now is the perfect time to place reasonable limits on farm bill subsidies while working to strengthen crop insurance protections that can act as a viable safety net for ALL agricultural producers.

The time is right for the Senate to clear some room in the economy so that family-sized farming operations can thrive (and, perhaps, some younger farmers can get into the business). Over the last few years, the Department of Agriculture has failed to enforce both the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921, and the Agricultural Fair Practices Act of 1967. This has led to a drop in competition in the livestock industry, depressing prices for small producers. Some Senators are thinking of adding a section to the farm bill that would insure competitive prices for livestock, so that small producers can be free to profit. That would be a good start.

Also, the Senate should question why the environmental quality incentives program (EQIP) picks up a chunk of the cost of manure disposal systems built by huge confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Manure lagoons at CAFOs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why should the government subsidize these environmentally dangerous and un-neighborly farm factories? Limits should be placed on EQIP payments so that large animal confinements bear responsibility for their own cost of doing business.

Now is the time to prune the vine, so that the all the rest of the inhabitants of the garden can bloom.

Healthy plants need room to grow.

Healthy farms do too.

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