What voters want in farm policy

Baseball has its winter hot-stove league when teams and players wheel and deal in hopes of improving their World Series chances.
NASCAR has its silly season late in the racing year when drivers and crews move their talents and tools to other shops in hopes of a Cup title.
Congress, of course, has August, a month-long grin-and-grip session where senators and representatives handout federal goodies – dams, roads, night-vision goggles – to local mayors, county commissioners and pretty much anyone standing still when the shiny Chevy Suburbans pull curbside.
Listening tour. This August, however, the top of the food chain at the USDA is hitting the road for several farm policy dog-and-pony shows at county and state fairs from Fresno to Indianapolis.
Officially, USDA calls these gum-bumpers, chaired either by Secretary Mike Johanns or an assistant secretary, “the nationwide farm bill listening tour.”
The idea, notes the Big Boss, is for “us to hear directly from America’s farmers and ranchers” on what the 2007 farm bill should contain.
Provided questions. That good idea loses some of its goodness, though, because the designers of the tour, the public relations mice at USDA, suggest producers wanting to speak at any of the forums direct their comments to six questions USDA thoughtfully provides.
All are designed to ensure the administration’s farm policy message – free trade, agbiz favoritism, farm program cuts – gets to Congress through Johanns.
For example, one question asks, “How should farm policy be designed to maximize U.S. competitiveness and our country’s ability to effectively compete in global markets?”
Hmm, I guess do away with all commodity prices supports, eliminate every federal farm conservation and environmental program and turn all USDA market functions over to Cargill and Bunge?
Poll results. Far, far better answers arrived Aug. 2 when, in a purely poetic policy moment, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation released results of a late-June, three-state (Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota) poll it commissioned to determine farm state voter priorities on USDA programs and spending.
The poll, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (and posted at www.wkkf.org), provides strong evidence that USDA and Congress will be on the wrong policy path in 2007 if the new farm bill fails to cap program payments to landowners yet cuts rural jobs, federal nutrition assistance and conservation programs.
For example, a fat 2-to-1 majority – 67 percent to 31 percent – of voters in the three states want direct payments to single farmers capped at $250,000 per year.
Even more striking, notes the Greenberg results, those polled who identified themselves as Republican farm income earners supported the hard, $250k-per-year cap at a higher level “than among voters as a whole.”
Budget cuts. Other results from of the query should grab both Congress’ and USDA’s attention as each spends August selling America and farmers on the devil’s bargain that will be at the center of the 2007 farm bill debate:
Where do you want USDA budget cuts to occur – farm programs, food assistance programs or both?
None of the above, voters said.
By a 3-to-1 margin, those polled don’t want crop subsidies eliminated, reduced or even touched.
The message couldn’t be clearer: Find other areas of spending to balance the federal budget; stay out of ag.
To drive home that point, pollsters then asked the Iowa, Minnesota and Kansas voters if they “would be more likely or less likely to support your member of Congress if you learned he or she voted in favor of the following cuts” – slashes to the big three: rural jobs, conservation or nutrition programs?
Surprise. The answer had to have moved a few Adam’s apples up and down in Congress.
“Almost two-thirds of voters describe themselves as less likely to support a member of Congress who votes to cut jobs programs in rural communities, as well as environmental and nutrition programs.”
In conclusion, explain the pollsters, “Only rarely does survey data deliver as sharp and clear a message as is the case in this study. Large bi-partisan majorities oppose cuts in USDA and commodity programs that underlie the economic well-being of rural communities

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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