The Next Farm Bill: How did we got from there to here, and where the heck are we going?

National politics appear to be pushing any action on a new farm bill into 2013.  This is not really that unexpected, as Congress has traditionally failed to enact farm legislation during an election year.

Given the political uncertainty in Washington, DC at the present time, it would be surprising to see any earth shattering legislation of any kind to pass this year … unless a lame duck Congress takes it upon itself to move ahead on few controversial issues.  The nation’s economy, massive unemployment, exploding debt and a continuing spiral towards another recession in 2013 are all placing a serious squeeze on meaningful farm legislation.

It may time for agriculture to reflect upon what brought us to this point in the farm bill debate.  First, consider the conflict between the food stamp provisions of the bill and those that address economic security for the nation’s agricultural sector.  These days the most oft asked question pertains to why these two conflicting issues are a part of the same legislation in the first place.

In years past, when agriculture had a more powerful hand in farm bill politics, there was still a need to draw a certain degree of support from urban legislators.  Tying agricultural policies with the food stamp program … a largely urban issue … made sense in those days because both rural and urban representatives had an interest in seeing a farm bill pass.  This increased the likelihood of both strong and bipartisan support for the bill.  However, politics has shifted the game as urban areas grow in representation and generations of Americans become further removed from their agricultural roots.

As urban representatives begin to flex their muscle in Congress, it would naturally follow that their interest in promoting economic security for farmers would wane.  However, that issue alone probably would not be, in itself, enough to derail farm bill legislation.  When, though, you throw in a mix of partisan politics, an unstable economy, a near crippling debt crisis, and rising unemployment … the political environment begins to shift considerably.

When the economy prospers and hums along, farm bill passage through Congress is more apt to be placed on the fast track to final passage. When the economy stutters, Congress moves more slowly, but passage of farm legislation is still reasonably anticipated.  When the economy stagnates, though, so does the farm bill.

One of the things that happens when the economy falters, is that the nation does not have sufficient income to support the expansion of government … unless the national debt is of no consideration.  So, under the current economic conditions there is now a finite amount of money available to fund the farm bill … and that finite amount is not sufficient to address all of the desires of the interested sides of the debate.

As there is a fixed amount of funds available to support a farm bill, the rural and urban legislators who once worked together to pass the legislation … are now at odds.  The conflict among the interests have reached a feverish pitch with each side pushing in an opposing direction … the results of which is that nothing is accomplished.

Unless there is some unforeseen circumstance, American agriculture should not expect any action on farm legislation until 2013 and, even then, only after the political dust has settled.  As the farm bill continues to be delayed, American agriculture can expect something else … fewer dollars to support an economic safety net for farm producers.  This all could change if the national economy becomes revved, but all signs point to a continued sluggish economy for some time to come.

It is more important than ever that agricultural interests come together to support a workable solution to the farm bill.  It cannot be swept under the rug that there exists a certain amount of conflict and animosity over the bill among different segments of American agriculture.  Conflict over the farm bill already exists in the halls of Congress, and that coupled with continued conflict among agricultural interests could spell disaster for workable legislation.  It could mean the difference between everyone getting something, or everyone getting nothing at all.  It is difficult to know exactly where the bus is going until we figure out who is driving the bus …

Texas Water. Will There Be Enough?

The availability of water is becoming is becoming more important each year as more and more people flock to the Lone Star State.  It is one of those resources we tend to take for granted until we find ourselves in the middle of extreme drought.  We have generally accepted the premise that water is a commodity that will always be in abundant supply … but that is certainly not the case.

Experts with the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) have projected that the demand for water could rise to 21.6 million acre-feet by 2060. They say that if the population of Texas continues to grow at the current rate, a drought in the year 2060 that matches the drought of record experienced during the 1950’s will result in 83 percent of the state’s population being without water.  Under that scenario, they say, the state’s economy would suffer a staggering blow with at least $116 billion in lost revenue.

The Texas Legislature is poised to take a serious look at the state’s water situation during the next regular session.  It remains uncertain, though, as to whether state politicos will be able to find sufficient funding to implement a statewide water management plan.  As the economy continues a sluggish recovery, legislators are already burdened with the task of trying to fund expanding national health care provisions and education.

The size of the state contributes greatly to the challenge of implementing a meaningful water plan.  Rainfall generally averages 10 inches in the west and up to 55 inches in the east. Temperatures can range from an average 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the Panhandle to more than 82 degrees Fahrenheit  in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  In most areas of the state, evaporation rates exceed average precipitation.

Texas water supplies come in two forms: surface water and ground water.  Surface water as rivers and streams supply about 40 percent of the state’s water supply.  Other surface water is available as river basins and man-made lakes.  Ground water is found in nine major and 21 minor aquifers.  Some aquifers, such as the Edwards Aquifer in Central Texas, are recharged by rainfall, but recharge is not sufficient to meet demand.  Other aquifers, such as the Ogallala in the High Plains, are not recharged by rainfall because they exist below an impermeable layer of soil that does not permit rain water to flow into the aquifer.

Realizing that agriculture is greatly dependent upon the availability of sufficient supplies of water, members of the Texas Agriculture Council (TAC) have formed a subcommittee to discuss the future water needs for agriculture in the state over the next several decades.  The subcommittee will be looking at current available water supplies relative to need, and will be investigating ways to improve water use efficiency in agricultural regions.  The group will also look at the economic significance of the agricultural industries to the state, and will seek to educate legislators and the general public about agricultural water use.

The task of addressing the future water needs of the state will not be easy.  It will take the combined efforts of all Texans to work towards a solution to ensure the continued economic prosperity of the state.

Is Agriculture Preaching to the Choir?

Those of us involved in agriculture have a terrible habit … preaching to the choir. So often we find that we are talking to each other about the problems that plague our industry, and, at the same time, reminiscing about the good old days when government kept its nose in its business, and we kept our noses in our business.

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We talk to each other about the power of agriculture and the importance of maintaining the “most affordable, most abundant and safest food in the world.” But who outside our common community is really listening to our story? And who in the urban population truly understands the significance of today’s American agriculture?

Turn to any of the many postings that are on the Internet and that pertain to the farm bill and scroll to the reader comments below the story. You will quickly see that there are many of our urban neighbors who do not understand our agricultural industry, and neither do they recognize the importance of meaningful farm legislation to our country and our way of life. They talk, instead, of large farm corporations getting fat subsidies from taxpayers. They do not understand that many small family farms are established as corporations for tax purposes, and they do not understand how protecting the economic stability of farmers is important to America.

Urbanites do not fully understand that the farmer’s and rancher’s ability to produce food relies heavily upon forces beyond their control. Forces like the weather, insects, plant diseases, wildfires, expanding government regulation and trade embargos.

It is often said that two thirds of the domestic production of grains is consumed in the United States, but it is the remaining one-third that determines the price … the one-third that is shipped to other destinations in the world market. Farmers are not able to determine the price of the commodities they produce based on the cost of production, but rather are at the mercy of the world market that sets the price. But who among us takes the time to take the message to our urban neighbors?

I once visited with a gentleman representing the European Union’s agricultural industries. He was asked why Europeans at that time were so committed to their regions’ agricultural sector. His reply was simple, “you Americans have never fought a world war on your own soil, you do not know what it is like to see mass starvation … not because you cannot afford food, but because there is no food to buy.”

We Americans do take the things we have for granted. We know that abundant and safe food has always been available to us, so why should we expect otherwise? Most urbanites have never visited a farm to see where their food is grown, and they have never seen a farm animal except on television or in a movie. And if the importance of something has never been established through open dialogue and example, why should the urbanite change his or her opinion from what has already been established in their mind?

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My wife’s great aunt visited with us years ago. Having been born and raised in New Jersey and not far from New York City, she had never seen a farm or ranch. While traveling to Corpus Christi one day, she inquired as to what all what all the “white stuff” was in the farm fields. Explaining to her that it was cotton, she could barely conceive in her mind how something grown in a dirty farm field in South Texas could make it to a fine, finished garment for sale in a store in New Jersey. It is difficult sometimes, for us involved in agriculture, to understand that city dwellers really have no concept of the agricultural industries. Who is there among us willing to take the time and effort to explain it to them?

A young boy in San Antonio was once asked, “Why do you think farmers work so hard on their farms?” He replied, “because they like to farm.” Indeed, most every farmer will tell you he or she likes to farm … that he or she enjoys the hard work and seeing the eventual fruit of his or her labors. But farmers, like everyone else, have families to support … food to buy, clothes for the children, fuel for the family car, money for college education, dollars for health care. Farmers need all the things their urban neighbors need.

Many folks do not realize that the majority of spending in the farm bill is for the food stamp program and other nutritional programs to protect the poor. And if they do know this, they wonder why food welfare and nutritional programs are a part of farm legislation. But who takes the time to tell them, and the time and effort to explain the story? Oh, sure, we tell our politicians … but who tells and explains agriculture’s story to the people who vote for them?

Some years ago an editorial appeared in the Victoria Advocate, lashing out at the national farm bill and its burden to the US budget. The editor was so fixated upon the cost of the program that he failed to mention the many contributions that agriculture makes to the American economy. When I wrote a letter to the editor responding to the newspaper editorial, I broke the farm bill spending into various categories … explaining that most of the farm bill’s cost could be attributed to the food stamp program.

I was surprised to receive a personal phone call from the newspaper editor arguing that the food stamp program was not a part of the farm bill. I referred him to a source at the USDA who, when contacted, confirmed that the food stamp program was not only a major part of the farm bill, but a significant and major expense to the legislation. A lot of people do not realize that the national food stamp program is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. But … who is there to tell the story to our urban friends?

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If agriculture is to survive in this nation and if it is to continue to contribute to the national security of the United States, it is imperative that we in agriculture form relationships and bonds with our urban counterparts. Communication, though, must be a two way street, because many of us familiar with our own rural issues and problems are not so aware of the problems that confront our urban neighbors.

Communication is not necessarily dependent upon the spoken word. Sometimes our actions speak volumes about our industry.

Growing up as a young boy in rural America, it was not uncommon for our family to spend time hunting during Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation. And when we had a successful hunt, it was also not unusual for us to strap that big buck to the car fender, or to place it on the tool box in the back of the truck for everyone to see the prize we had collected.

Fortunately, these days we do not often see a dead animal prominently displayed on a car fender or on the pickup tool box. Why is that so fortunate? Quite frankly, the practice is repugnant to many of our urban friends who have not shared the experiences offered in rural areas. You see, we in agriculture need to understand that the political landscape has changed, and that many of our urban counterparts no longer have a direct connection to rural roots. They no longer understand agriculture … but that does not necessarily mean they have lost the will to learn about agriculture.

Those of us who work at or near the state capitol have talked for years about the political transformation taking place in Austin. The transformation has been completed. A significant majority of our elected officials now represent large urban areas east of IH 35, and the power of the rural vote is greatly diminished. How this political reality affects rural communities, farmers and ranchers depends upon how we package and deliver our message to the urban public.

Perhaps it is time for agriculture to move beyond the choir and mingle among members of the congregation.