Will U.S. farmers be the next victims of the House majority's right-wing extremism?
Seeds of disaster
You don't need government reports to know this has been a rough year for agriculture. Drive through southern Wisconsin, home to some of the best cropland in the world, and the ravages of a major drought and the hottest summer on record are obvious.
King Corn looks to be half what it is in a so-called normal year. Soybeans aren't a lot better. The field borders and woodlots are withered. The land looks tired, worn out, ready for a long nap.
We don't need government reports to tell us this, but there they are, anyway: Corn yields will drop to a 17-year low by the time the last harvesters rumble across the fields this autumn, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Soybeans will be way down, too. Yet Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack insists U.S. farmers and ranchers remain resilient and the country will continue to meet demand as the global leader in farm exports and food aid.
Vilsack can say that because the U.S. long ago decided agriculture was too important to have to stand alone. It's one of the most ubiquitous examples of public-private partnerships in the country today, even if some who preach less government would rather have us look the other way.
I wonder what Paul Ryan thinks about this, hailing as he does from Rock County, home to some of the finest cropland anywhere. Are the corn and soybean growers there to stand alone in the face of the worst drought in decades and the hottest summer on record?
Of course they won't. Most growers have crop insurance, a system in which both premiums and payments are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. This system buffers farmers from years like this. Direct payments under the current farm bill also benefit commodity growers. In fact, record profits, of all things, are predicted this year for commodity growers.
It hardly seems possible, but that's how things work. The rest of the world isn't so well off. Expectations of crop damage from dry weather in Russia have sent world wheat prices up 19 percent. Russia's drought and record heat in 2010 led to major declines in crop yields, which led that government to restrict exports, which led to food riots in parts of the world.
A lot of people find fault with U.S. farm bills. They're by no means perfect. But the fact is, farm bills have been one of the best examples of bipartisanship in Congress for decades. Until this year, that is. The Senate has passed its version of a new five-year farm bill, one that the agriculture and conservation communities have embraced, but the House is thumbing its nose at the American public and the world by refusing to act. So one of the last bastions of responsible, bipartisan lawmaking in Washington has been victimized by crass politics and blind ideology. That's just the way things work, or don't work, these days.
Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported the stretch from August 2011 through July of this year was the warmest 12-month period the U.S. has experienced. Ever.
Maybe The Old Farmer's Almanac is right, and we'll have lots of snow this winter. Maybe spring rains will bathe the countryside and usher in a better summer next year. One can always hope. The chances may be better than what we can expect from Washington.
September 11, 2012
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Bill Berry is a FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Stevens Point and writes columns for the Capital Times and other publications.