Inside D.C.

Ms. Clinton, Mr. Trump, attention must be paid

The most recent and most public examples of how little policymakers think about production agriculture and the existing and emerging challenges to food production are the Republican and Democrat national party conventions.  Amid all of the hoopla, family speeches, name calling and balloon dropping, nary a word was said about agriculture.  The most public acknowledgement of the importance of the rural/farm vote was when South Dakota Democrat party chair, Ann Toberg, a Beresford dairy farmer, cast her delegation’s candidate votes and put Hillary Clinton over the top, clinching her the Democrat nomination and her place in history as the first woman to top a U.S. major party ticket.

This lack of attention and meaningful public discussion at either convention illustrates just how much U.S. food production is taken for granted.  Part of the reason is the declining number of voters in the hinterlands; however, if I’m reading the polling cards correctly, we may have an opportunity during this most bizarre of all presidential campaigns to shine some light on the industry which feeds all of us.

Both parties are reading numbers right now indicating the race between Clinton and Donald Trump could be one of the closest in memory.  Faced with that possibility, both campaigns are banging together instruments to reach out – “energize” is the favored term – to rural America.  Historically, every place that isn’t a major city/suburb tends to vote Republican.  Right now, rural America is supporting Trump more than it supported Mitt Romney in 2012.  Clinton trails significantly behind the level of rural support enjoyed by President Obama that same year.

The GOP will announce next week its “agribusiness advisory council,” chaired by millionaire Nebraska Angus breeder and businessman Charles Herbster.  Along with the advisory committee will come a major policy announcement.  No clues to who sits on the advisory panel or what that policy statement might say.  Former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, an unalloyed champion for agriculture, is another major Trump surrogate.

For Clinton, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) used its Rural Council during the convention to focus on issues important to rural America, including health care, investment, energy and the like.  However, there’s a new group called Rural for Hillary set up in Washington, DC, unaffiliated with the campaign, but with a goal of letting rural folks know Clinton prioritizes their concerns. No word on campaign policy announcements.

There are planks included in each party’s platform talking about the wonderfulness of rural America and the need to support and encourage farmers and ranchers, but any statement of substance deals with pending political issues, as in no Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) vote during the post-election lame duck congressional session or the need to yank the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the old federal food stamp program – out of the next Farm Bill.   The reality is that party platforms mean very little when it comes to future policy and programs favored by whichever party candidate wins the White House.

While I don’t diminish the broad challenges facing America’s rural communities – and farmers and ranchers are an integral part of those communities – I’d like to see some serious, focused attention from both candidates paid to the unique challenges facing food producers.

Some of the challenges both candidates need to confront include the fact less than 2% of U.S. workers are full-time farmers, meaning about 2 million folks feed just over 324 million, along with a big chunk of the world.  By the way, that full-time farmer percentage is dropping. The average age of a U.S. farmer is 58 years old; for someone who doesn’t inherit a successful working operation, the initial investment in farming is millions of dollars in land, equipment, inputs, labor, energy, etc. Federal regulation – promulgated by agencies with little or no understanding of production agriculture – is the biggest barrier to successful farming and a huge deterrent to those who contemplate the lifestyle.  I’m not going to talk about El Nino.

While the Republican platform is silent on some warm and fuzzy notions about farming, it’s no better when it comes to downplaying the importance of farming and ranching by essentially ignoring the challenges.  The Democrat platform talks about supporting “family” farmers and ranchers – “a cherished way of life for millions of Americans” – yet I’m guessing the policy wonk who drafted that statement assumes those “family” operations are all 150 acres with red barns and chickens in the yard.  The reality is 97% of U.S. farms are family owned.  I also assume that to most urban politicos “family” means small.  This belies the fact that according to the latest census, there are just 80,000 farms in the U.S. with sales of over $1 million a year.  These operations represent 4% of the total farm population, but account for two-thirds of all U.S. agricultural production.


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