Tennessee Drought, 2007

Farmers take on a lot of risk. One of the purposes of the Farm Bill is to protect ranchers and farmers who suffer steep losses, often for reasons beyond anyone’s control. This summer, the southeast is in the middle of a catastrophic drought that is devastating farms from Florida to Kentucky. Here some cattle stir dust in Tennessee pastures that are normally green and lush.

What is the most unpleasant thing you can think of?

The dentist’s drill?

Fingernails drawn across a blackboard?

Water boarding at Guantanamo?

Nope, it’s the Farm Bill. But before you decide not to read about such unpleasantness, let me tell you why you should care.

The Farm Bill is the prescription for the rural health of our nation.

The United States is a warm, breathing body, a living creation with a pulse beating at 60 thumps per minute. But just as our individual bodies need air, water, and food, our nation needs sustenance, too. And we can’t have a healthy country if we ignore the agricultural system that provides nourishment to each individual.

Richard Oswald

Richard Oswald and granddaughter Katelyn

Over the years our nation has been corrupted, sickened by some major vices. Corporations have hardened our arteries, bureaucracy has clogged them, and too little exercise of national priorities has weakened the heart of our homeland. Rather than change our behavior, we have used over-the-counter medications, such as imported food and lax enforcement of free trade agreements, to lessen the discomfort.

What farms need most are fair trade and a reasonable financial safety net. Like city dwellers, farmers have bills to pay and mortgages. But owning a farm is not like owning a house in a subdivision. It’s an economic undertaking with greater responsibility, bigger bills, fluctuating markets, and perils of nature. Simply providing a comprehensive crop insurance program to all agricultural producers will go a long way toward protecting our agricultural economy. Improved crop insurance coverage can help all farms stay healthy and, at the same time, diminish direct price support payments that are sometimes used to shelter vulnerable agricultural businesses in times of hardship.

Direct cash payments should be limited. No one, no matter how large, should be allowed to build a business at the cost of government, solely for the sake of collecting that support.

Farms and farm communities need each other for obvious reasons. Farms provide a basic tax base for local government. Local government provides services needed in the rural community. And rural communities provide the social muscle needed to join them all together.

A rural agenda must be established. At minimum, it would:

1. Provide support of moderate farms over mega farms.

2. Promote rural communities, locally produced food for an urban nation, and reasonable limits on individual subsidies.

3. Target development not just support agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture grants should be used to promote a healthy mix of small businesses in rural communities and encourage the retention of the skilled population needed to support strong local economies.

Rural development should be about more than simply building cheap housing in small towns — warehouses for workers needed in the cities. Low cost housing attracts people who cannot afford better. It is necessary, perhaps, for some low-wage earners, but low cost housing across broad stretches of rural America does nothing to help us restore our community pride.

Give rural people the means to make a living locally and we’ll pay a reasonable cost for housing.

Give us a rejuvenated tax base and we’ll bear the cost of vital services.

Help us to rebuild our towns by creating new, compatible industries and we’ll grow that local tax base to provide more schools, streets, and services. In short, give the heart of the nation the respect it deserves and it will circulate the lifeblood of America for many years to come.

And that’s why everyone should care about the Farm Bill.

Richard Oswald is a farmer in Langdon, Missouri. He’s a former school board president and is active in both the National Farmers Union and the Missouri Farmers Union.

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