Sixty days till the farm world shakes

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In March 1919, John Reed, an American journalist, published Ten Days that Shook the World, his eyewitness book on one of the new century’s most defining events, the Russian Revolution.

Eighty years later, Reed’s groundbreaking work was still shaking the world. New York University ranked it seventh on its list of the 20th century’s 100 most consequential works. The reason for its high position, the university noted, was “the magnitude of the event being reported on…”

Election day

In 60 or so days, American voters face an event of similar magnitude; Election Day, Nov. 3. Its results — whoever wins — will shake the nation and world as much and for as long as what Reed recorded a century ago.

This is especially so for rural Americans because their communities, farms and ranches sit on the precipice of enormous change. Many of the forces driving these changes, like climate, require global coordination; others, like tariff wars and biofuel policy, are national issues that demand swift overhaul. A few, like property taxes, must be addressed quickly and locally.

All, however, require public action built on political consensus if U.S. farmers and ranchers are to have anywhere near as bright futures as their forebears dreamed of and drove towards.

Something is wrong

Where to start? At the beginning, notes Todd Hultman, a lead market analyst for DTN, in the September issue of Progressive Farmer, by openly acknowledging “those in agriculture” — that’s you and me — “know something is deeply wrong.”

We know this because, he points out, it’s as obvious as the nose on our face. “If we go by USDA’s national estimates… in 2020/21, corn will lose $89 an acre, and soybeans will lose $41 an acre.”

Also, livestock producers “who purchased 560-pound feeder steers to finish… lost $144.67 per head” from Oct. 2019 to June 2020 while farrow-to-finish hog producers “lost $23.20 a head…” over a similar period.

So “Instead of passing the hat” — bellying up to the federal trough for ever-bigger bailout schemes — “and pretending everything is fine, maybe it’s time we had a larger conversation about the financial participation of others in the food supply chain.”

The others

Great idea; let’s begin with who these “others in the food supply chain” are and what we might say to them in a “larger conversation.”

Obvious “others” would be the first and last links in the international food supply chain — the swaggering, loosely-regulated giants in seed, crop protection, fertilizer, meatpacking, grain merchandising and food manufacturing — that carve up, then capture, government and markets alike.

Other others would be U.S. government agencies charged with food safety and market antitrust — like the Department of Justice, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture — that could do more to level the farm and food playing field for every participant large or small instead of clearing the way for the powerful.

Additional others must include American farm and commodity groups — as well as long past-their-due-date commodity checkoffs — that continue to advocate 1970s “we feed the world” U.S. farm policies despite 50 years of trade deals that have made almost every nation a competitor and almost every American farmer and rancher a sitting duck.

And, surely, “others” would include American consumers who have never paid the real cost of food because of industry-designed, government-enforced policies that shelter large parts of the food chain — like sugar, ethanol and confined livestock and poultry production — from global markets through tariffs, mandated usage and weak environmental policies.

All of these “others” — from the biggest corporation to the smallest farm — must be heard as farmers, ranchers, agribusiness and Congress move to write a new Farm Bill in the coming four years.

That new law either can acknowledge the profound changes American farmers and ranchers face and act as a springboard to new crops, new farms and new markets or it can tighten its grip on the past and its monocultures and feedlots that will require ever-bigger taxpayer bailouts.

Either way, change is coming. World-shaking change.

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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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