Farm bill revives New Zealand truth

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As sure as the rooster crows every morning, someone will crow every farm bill year on how New Zealand’s 1984 elimination of government farm programs has brought a never-ending dawn to Kiwi farmers.
This year’s rooster is Dean Kleckner, former president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and current chairman of Truth About Trade and Technology, an Iowa-based agbiz and trade booster club.
Cold turkey. In an Oct. 15 New York Times op-ed piece titled Today’s Harvest of Shame, Kleckner endorses New Zealand’s “cold turkey” break with farm subsidies as the path we should follow so the world – really the World Trade Organization – doesn’t see America “reversing course on a half-century of steadily expanding trade opportunities.”
After admitting he cashed American farm program checks for years, Kleckner said he discovered this gospel during a 1990s visit to New Zealand.
“On that trip and several later ones,” he offers, “I never met a farmer who wanted to go back to subsidies.”
He never met one, explain two New Zealand researchers in a detailed, 2003 report that examined their country’s break with farm programs because “only rarely are views sought of those farmers who were pushed off the land” despite the “considerable social distress generated” by the policy shift and today’s “lingering environmental costs.”
Background. Moreover, what Kleckner et. al. always overlook when advocating the New Zealand model, said Willie Smith and Hayden Montgomery of the University of Auckland, is the geographic and economic backdrop that led to subsidy abandonment.
First, New Zealand possesses the world’s greatest grass-based agriculture; hilly terrain, favorable climate and intensive management made it into a lamb, milk and beef exporter well before 1984.
Its target market was its mother, Great Britain. When England joined Europe’s Common Market in 1967, New Zealand’s milk and meat exports plummeted. It reacted with farm programs, subsidies, as it searched for ways to retool its ag.
The interlude was brief because, in 1984, a new Kiwi government pushed the entire nation – not just agriculture – into the global marketplace. The move brought the sky down on farmers.
By 1987, farmland prices had “collapsed by between 50 percent and 70 percent,” note the authors.
Adverse weather, and the lack of government disaster programs after 1984, compounded the mess. By the early 1990s, the washout was over.
Survivors. What was surprising, however, note the researchers, was who survived.

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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

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