Is new ag reform a plan or an obituary?


Five hundred years ago this week, a German theologian nailed a sheet of 95 statements, or theses, to a church door in Saxony in hopes of starting a debate to reform the church he loved.

But Martin Luther’s hammer didn’t spur debate; it sparked a wildfire that changed the world.

That’s the thing about reformers; once they get events rolling, events take over. Sometimes reform follows, other times revolution.


The USDA would be wise to take note of this difference because it is smack in the middle of what it calls a “broader on-going review of the Department based on the President’s… ‘Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch.'”

That effort, and a 2014 farm bill mandate for USDA to establish an “Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs,” will deliver a department, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue promises, that maximizes “customer satisfaction” and will be an “unapologetic advocate” for U.S. ag exports.

Doesn’t exist

The plan hit a pothole Oct. 19 when Senate Ag Committee leaders asked Perdue not to swear in a newly approved undersecretary because — well, gosh, this is embarrassing — the office he was to fill under the USDA reform plan does not actually exist. Not yet, anyway.

Glitches like that should have been expected because few — in fact, no one that I could find — has seen an actual copy of USDA’s reform plan. To one Capitol Hill old-timer that means only one thing: “There really isn’t a plan.”

USDA is in the middle of what appears to be its biggest “reorganization” in history and there is no formal, public document of the announced (or to-be-announced) reforms, costs or benefits, and what it means to taxpayers and farmers both here and abroad. So what do we know?


On May 11, just two weeks after unpacking his socks in Washington, D.C., Perdue announced changes within USDA.

The two most sweeping were the creation of the Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs (per the 2014 farm bill) and the elimination of the Under Secretary for Rural Development, an office that manages a $216 billion rural loan portfolio.

It’s not known if Perdue arrived at USDA with the reform plan or if he was handed it upon arrival. Nor is it known who wrote it and who paid for the works.

The plan’s author is important because their view shaped the plan’s overall theme: what you see in American agriculture today is what you’ll see for decades to come — increasingly large, export-driven, biofuel-centered commodity production with ever fewer suppliers, farmers and ranchers competing for lower prices and more taxpayer subsidies.


What the author got wrong, however, is that American agriculture won’t be the same a generation or even 10 years from now. It will be different because it’s always different, never static.

In the last generation alone, U.S. farmers have adopted GMOs, drones, and GPS. It’s anyone’s guess what the next generation will bring. But it won’t be more of the same.

Electric vehicles will dent — maybe even run over — the ethanol industry, climate change will continue to move production and markets to levels and places once unimaginable, and technology will continue to remove people from both farms and rural communities.

And yet the unpublished, unseen USDA reform “plan” doesn’t account for any of these highly likely events. Instead it looks backward 40 years, not forward even 10.

As such, it’s more an obituary than a reform plan.


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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.



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