Farm and Food File: It’s a real bonfire of the boneheads

The U.S. Navy has its Fleet Week, Major League Baseball its All Star Week and the U.S. government its Look The Other Way (LOW) Week.

OK, the feds might not have an official LOW week but it’s hard to find any part of government that stands up to the big money and big pressure of Big Biz. That includes our farm and food public servants at the USDA.

Evidence

For confirmation, consider federal action — or the lack thereof — in early November. MF Global Holdings Ltd., a Wall Street investment bank and the nation’s third largest futures trading clearinghouse, disintegrated into the vapors of bankruptcy Oct. 31.

The demise was not unexpected; the Wall Street Journal had chronicled MFG’s dying wheezes for a week. And, yet, when MFG finally took the big flop, $600 million or so in customer trading account cash was missing.

Some of the loot, reported Marcia Taylor of DTN, came from “cattle feeders and grain elevators whose MF Global accounts are missing large chunks of their futures accounts …”

The big news here isn’t that another boneheaded master of the universe took another Wall Street investment bank over a cliff. No, the big news is that no regulator — not the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, not the Securities Exchange Commission, not the Justice Department — stepped in to keep MFG from taking customer money with it.

Why?

What, the bonfire from Wall Street’s 2008 inferno still too hot for government regulators and Congress to sweep up these double-dealing cheats and chiselers?

Earlier in the week, USDA acknowledged its role in stacking the deck to favor Big Ag’s new poodle, U.S Farmers & Rancher’s Alliance, the St. Louis-based effort to make today’s genetically modified, verticalized agriculture look more like yesterday’s warm and fuzzy farms and ranches.

According to figures supplied by the department’s Ag Marketing Service, $6.26 million in national checkoff collections went to USFRA in “fiscal year 2011″ for such urgent items as “capturing and distributing informational interviews with USFRA board members” and to “develop four HTML emails for affiliates and strategic partners …” (Read the USDA memo at www.farmandfoodfile.com/_/Documents.html).

Six million bucks ain’t chicken feed for an organization whose Big Ag members — like the American Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Monsanto and CropLife America — are some of the fiercest political players in Washington.

Nice haul

But the windfall is more than half of USFRA’s “less than $11 million” annual budget, according to information on its website. Not a bad haul from a source, federal checkoffs, that by law cannot be used for any political purpose whatsoever.

Worse, USDA found the time to rule that non-political, federal checkoff money — $3 million from soybeans, $3 million from pork and at least $250,000 from beef — can bankroll an organization whose members are a who’s who in farm and ranch politics but it can’t find nickels to pay auditors to determine how much recent checkoff money the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association misspent.

By NCBA’s own admission we know it was more than $200,000; by USDA’s own pathetic planning it’s likely we will never know how much more.

That failure has a price. Part of it was made known Nov. 4 by USDA when, after 17 months of intense lobbying by meatpackers and their Big Ag allies, it advanced the GIPSA rule without key elements to ensure livestock market transparency and integrity.

Deal

As if to celebrate its coming bureaucratic victory, meatpackers gutted cattle markets for $3 per hundredweight between Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, alleges R-CALF, the rancher group from Billings, Mont.

The $3 break, explains R-CALF, meant packers paid cattle sellers $5.6 million less for the 92,000 head they bought Nov. 1 than what it would have cost ‘em Nov. 2.

Golly, as old Ev Dirksen might say, $6 million here, $6 million there, and pretty soon we’re talking about a real bonfire.

© 2011 ag comm

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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