Friday, July 3, 2015

Farm program withdrawal

August 1997

As a child, I was made increasingly aware of the enemy of all I held dear - communism. This malevolent force ordered American priorities for everything from federal expenditures to movie stars, gave purpose to several pretty silly exercises such as bomb shelters, and culminated in the national heartache of Viet Nam. But then suddenly the communists weren’t there any more.

During my farming career, a similar force alternately enraged and confused me - the federal farm program. Especially since I participated in farm organization debates over proper farm policy, the farm program occupied much of my thinking and planning. Now it too is gone, for all practical purposes.

Oh sure, the checks still arrive twice a year. But the decoupled aspect of the current farm program means this event has no more significance to me than receiving a coop patronage check. On my farm at least, the federal government has largely melted from everyday existence. At least until 2002.

I have discovered, for instance, several intricate farm program spreadsheets and analyses that today seem curiously quaint, like corn rakes or checkwires. Nothing is as out of date as yesterday’s fashion. Reading a novel recently about farming during the 80’s, I came to a reverie-filled halt at the mention of PIK certificates. Viewed from a distance, the ideas seem as unattractive as some of the pants I was wearing at the time. Lime-green, bell-bottom farm policy.

Nevertheless, agriculture may be starting to miss this government interference in both subtle and obvious ways. Just like my friends in the Navy, I have learned that an old reliable enemy can create some old reliable ruts in which to live.

I have learned, for example, it is one thing to talk about volatility, another to live through it. Before the enactment of the 1995 Farm Bill, I was sure I was ready for such wild market action, gazing longingly at the peaks, and ignoring the valleys. The astonishing price swings of the last two years exposed my own market naiveté, as well as my thin veneer of stoicism. Since I didn’t bother to raise my marketing expertise to match production skills, the unbinding of market forces left me battered. But I have noticed lately some survival skills being forged, out of sheer necessity. 

Farmers aren’t the only ones affected by this abrupt loss. As the recurring surprises in acreage figures have demonstrated, forecasting what farmers are doing or going to do has just gotten a little trickier. It could be that as planting flexibility becomes less novel, even greater surprises may happen. The reliable hard data lost with annual sign-ups was the backbone for many an analysis by government and private pundits, who now see trends slightly less clearly. The idea of my farm possessing an air of mystery today does have a certain appeal, though. 

One of the harder hit segments of agriculture has been farm organizations. At a recent corn grower meeting several members complained that the meetings weren’t as exciting as they used to be. While they blamed poor organization and leadership (as usual), I suspect that the loss of the of farm program arguments is really to blame. Those debates were passionate, intricate, and personally meaningful. Often I have calculated my own farm program check amounts while the speakers were going at it. That kind of individual impact is hard to match with subjects like transportation, research, or even trade. 

Farm organizations also developed the unfortunate habit of engaging their membership constantly by calls to do battle with the government, not unlike the Pentagon vs. the Red Menace on Capitol Hill. With no farm program alarms, the attention of the farmer membership may be wandering. While there are many other legitimate policy issues on which to do battle, the old program was a favorite of the troops. 

Even farm media have felt the loss. Think of all the pages of articles, explanations, charts, tables, what-if scenarios, and the like that haven’t been published lately. Suddenly a significant amount of subject matter disappeared from the editors’ menu of story items. The farm program was such an ideal topic too. Laden with details and unintended consequences, provoking passionate interest in readers, and constantly being adjusted and debated, it was not just a story, but a journalistic career.

The greatest impact, of course, for farm program withdrawal is on those whose job it was to administer it. At the very top, the bailing out of ag committees by several members of Congress was like the rodents on the proverbial sinking ship. Likewise, the change in FCS offices is profound, at least from what I can tell by the few visits I have made there. There the wistful longing for a more complicated and hence, career enhancing, program is evident. In my local office, unnecessary certification is urged stridently, even though crop bases are defunct. The reason: “just in case the next bill resurrects old numbers”. My refusal to do so, explained by my wish to keep acreage bases dead, was received with noticeable coolness. Breaking up is hard to do, especially after such a long and close relationship.

It’s just that the farm program was a long term habit, like scratching when you wake up. What will be interesting will be to see how deeply ingrained this memory is in our collective mind in 2001, when the end is in sight. Think of the number of farmers whose careers will not have any experience with set-asides, bases, or target prices. Seven years is also a long time for us older guys. Who can say what sentiments we will entertain then? 

I just want to know what happened to all the time I should have saved not fussing about a farm program.

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