Facing the Future

By Dan Zinkand

Two freshly butchered and eviscerated chickens-pinfeathers plucked and singed-peer out at the world, held up by two bespectacled youngsters. This photograph mesmerized the Philadelphia-born-and-bred children in the show-and- tell class. Then they asked, "Don't chickens come from the supermarket?"

Farmers lament responses like this one. A public several generations removed from the farm neither understands nor appreciates agriculture, they say. "We've got to tell our story better" is the usual conclusion.

But the distance between farmers and urban consumers is not something new. My sister and I held up these tasty fryers some thirty years ago. The photographer was my mother, who grew up on a farm in Kansas and who thought nothing of butchering chickens.

These days, there's more likely to be confrontation than communication between farmers and consumers. Try repeating this show-and-tell today and protesters from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) would picket the school, squawking for TV cameras. While a conversation between agriculture and the public is worth having, I don't think it will focus on making the public understand and appreciate modern agriculture. Instead, I think it will continue to escalate into a debate that eventually will result in the elimination of government payments related to production of crops, milk, and other forms of food and fiber. Although some USDA programs will almost certainly remain, support for the socalled "program crops," which include corn, wheat, cotton, rice and barley, probably will end.

In spite of the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill, which will lead to an estimated $18 billion in direct government payments this year, there are several indications that these programs are a temporary phenomenon:

  • Al Olson, chief executive officer of the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota, says farmers should not count on commodity payments after this farm bill ends in 2007. Olson, a stalwart Republican who served as attorney general and then governor of North Dakota, made this statement in September. When someone with Olson's credentials prognosticates, I listen.
  • Fighting a war on terrorism exacts a high cost. During the 1980s and 1990s, there was public sympathy and money support for U.S. farmers. This was before the cost of the new war on terrorism, the dot.com implosion, and the sobering effects of corporate scandals. Suddenly scrutinizing costs looks positively chic.
  • Perhaps most significantly, there is increasing criticism of farm payments in the U.S. media even as there is a demographic shift. More people live in urban areas and eventually far fewer legislators will represent "farm districts." The growing sense of outrage and thinly disguised criticism of farm program payments isn't confined to "activist" groups.

 

Consider the tone of these titles: "A New Villain in Free Trade: The Farmer on the Dole," (New York Times, August 25, 2002); "Old McDonald Had a Subsidy"' (Salon, May 1, 2002); and, most ominously, the recent coffee-table book Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. These contrast sharply with the save-the-family farm movies in the 1980s such as Country with Jessica Lange. With each of these articles, the image of the farmer erodes, from the positive one as a steward who feeds people and cares for the earth to depiction of the farmer as a welfare bum.

If Olson is right that payments to farmers will end, what's at stake? You can agree or disagree with the current food and agricultural system, but the nation does receive value. A 2002 farm bill summary called "Facts on U.S. Farm Policy" says: Current farm policy costs just 4.4 cents a meal per day; this cost is just slightly more than one-half of one percent of the federal budget; consumers spend a minuscule 10.9 percent of their income on food; current farm policy generates 25 million jobs and contributes $3.5 trillion in agricultural output (15 percent of U.S. GDP).

Nevertheless, I think the current system of providing payments will disappear. As we contemplate such a change, here are a few of th questions we should be asking.

What will be the short-term impact and who will bear the costs? I've heard estimates that eliminating these payments would cut Iowa's land values in half and that the effects would be greater than those during the "farm debt crisis" of the 1980s. You may doubt this, but it's prudent to contemplate what this shift might entail. For example, it could increase demand for already-strained social services.

What will farmers be freed to do? Will the end of farm payments force them from being producers of raw materials to makers and sellers of fresh and processed foods, and to generators and sellers of electricity generated from wind and biomass? Will they be compensated for providing clean air and clean water-goods now deemed to be public? Some farmers already do this and I admire their vision and tenacity. Prominent examples are Niman Ranch (www.nimanranch.com), which supplies "free-range and hormone-free" beef, pork and lamb, and Kamut, the business of Montana farmer Bob Quinn, who grows an ancient variety of glutenfree wheat using organic methods (www.kamut.com).

But moving from commodity production to niche businesses and from niches to larger markets is not a slam dunk. Farmers who move from selling milk to making cheese may once again end up being squeezed on the price they receive, says Richard Levins, University of Minnesota economist says. "They lack the market power to successfully face the giant retailers head-on in negotiations over cheese prices." (See Levins' "An Essay on Farm Income," http://agecon.lib.umn.edu.)

Elbert van Donkersgoed, strategic policy advisor for the 4,500-member Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada, says a private supply management system is emerging. "Companies will use value chains-controlling, but not necessarily owning the production of food from field to table-to enhance their market opportunities," he says. "The strength of value chains lies in the ability to manage the supply of raw materials and products from field to table. They will manage the supply and the price for the benefit of those in control of the chains. Private price fixing is abhorrent to the public good."

It's been argued that the United States could import all of its food from places such as Brazil, China, and Ukraine. But isn't there value in having people farming in the United States? I believe so. Do consumers want competition between and among farms, agribusinesses and food retailers? Do they want efficiency and competition? Does the public really want the least expensive food? And how do we define least expensive-in terms of money or security?

While I think that the major commodity programs will end, we need to expect the unexpected. Just when free-market advocates gained steam with China's accession to the World Trade Organization, things changed. Terrorists attacked the United States. Some prominent Americans now stress food security, believing that producing more food domestically increases security. The farm bill summary from the House Agriculture Committee bears these words on the cover: "We are a blessed nation because we can grow our own food and, therefore, we're secure. " These are not the words of some aging Democratic lefty. They were uttered by President George Bush.

All it will take-God forbid-is one terrorist act that sabotages the U.S. food system and sickens and kills people. Then certifiedsafe, domestically-grown food will look inexpensive at almost any price.

"The primary role for the government is to ensure adequate, safe, and affordable food for its citizens,'- says Michael Duffy, an Iowa State University agricultural economist. "If a government does not provide food for its people then there will be revolution because a hungry person has nothing to lose."

After twelve years of covering agriculture and related industries as a journalist, I can say this with certainty: Few of the questions about food and agricultural policy are stupid. Few of the answers are easy. All of the questions are worth asking.

Dan Zinkand is the Agronomy and Biotechnology Editor for Iowa Farmer Today. The opinions expressed here are his alone. Zinkand, the Midwest vice-president of the North American Agricultural Journalists, has worked on a North Dakota pig farm and in an Iowa butcher shop. In September 2002 he attended PERC's conference for journalists on "Agriculture and the Environment."

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Dan Zinkand is the Agronomy and Biotechnology Editor for Iowa Farmer Today. The opinions expressed here are his alone. Zinkand, the Midwest vice-president of the North American Agricultural Journalists, has worked on a North Dakota pig farm and in an Iowa butcher shop.
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