While 2021 is not 2009, it’s easy to see how some Americans — and, in fact, many farmers and ranchers — might get confused.
After all, a quick look around Washington, D.C. late this Jan. 20 will reveal several similarities to the same day 12 years earlier: Joe Biden is in the White House, Nancy Pelosi reigns as Speaker of the U.S. House, the Democrats run the Senate, and Tom Vilsack awaits confirmation to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Other ag similarities ended 11 days earlier when three of the four principle writers of several past Farm Bills departed Congress. Two, Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Republican Mike Conaway of Texas, have been on the House Ag Committee all or most of this century and, since 2015, each has served as its chair. The third departing member, Sen. Pat Roberts from Kansas, is the only person to ever chair both the Senate and House Ag committees.
Between the three — Roberts and Conaway retired; Peterson was retired by the voters — Congress lost a collective 85 years of Farm Bill-writing experience and farm policy memory.
Change is hard
Fear not, however; change is not just around the corner because a.) faces change in Congress, Congress itself rarely changes and b.) both parties have so many new (but not young) bulls ready to replace the old bulls that it’s doubtful most farmers and ranchers will notice any switch.
On the House side, Democrat David Scott, reelected to his 11th term from suburban Atlanta in November, is the first Black member to chair the Ag Committee. His Republican counterpart, Ranking Member Glenn Thompson, PA, came to Congress in 2008.
Neither old pro is known for making waves — departing from conventional Big Ag policies — and both won wide praise from agbiz advocacy groups like the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Corn Growers after claiming their committee posts.
The leadership of the Senate Ag Committee, because of the Democratic doubleheader sweep in Georgia Jan. 5, swings to Michigander Debbie Stabenow, a long-time Democratic member who played a key role in stitching together the years-overdue 2018 Farm Bill. Republican John Boozman from Arkansas will serve as ranking Republican despite the 50/50 Dem-Repub Senate split.
Interestingly, Boozman came to the Senate after trouncing Blanche Lincoln, the only other woman to serve as Ag Committee chair, in 2010.
Change is coming
All this matters because everyone — especially those on Capitol Hill — knows the Donald Trump-Sonny Perdue Gravy Train, that has delivered an astonishing $130 billion in federal subsidies in just four years to American farmers and ranchers, is out of steam.
Still in play, however, are the conditions that fueled it: a 19th century, tariff-based trade policy; a crop insurance-centered farm program that stokes low prices; an anything-goes, rancid meatpacking sector; soil and water conservation programs that are an embarrassment to the word “conservation;” and an anti-science approach to climate change. That list of failures also serves as a to-do list for the new ag leaders now, two years before the next Farm Bill is due.
In fact, the new leaders, despite their loyalty to the old chairmen and old programs, should use the coming year to examine new ways — carbon payments, meatpacker antitrust, science-based conservation rules, community-driven hunger programs, and other ideas — to shore up U.S. ag’s weakening economic and agronomic walls.
And, no, any new program doesn’t need to replace Big Ag’s worn-out, costly and largely ineffective “cheap food” farm policies. New ones should be given space, however, to rise alongside the old to revitalize the weakening rural economy through regenerative, sustainable food production rather than fund a deepening dependency on unsustainable, ad hoc farm subsidies that mostly spur overproduction and end up elsewhere.
New leadership, after all, implies new ideas, new directions, and new choices. Besides, it’s a new year and it’s not 2009.
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