The new coronavirus, a farmer in a recent news story noted, “is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
It may feel that way now but, honestly, that back-breaking straw hit the camel decades ago when the nation’s top agricultural, academic and political leaders embraced dollar-driven efficiency over safety-centered resiliency as the overarching goal of American farm policy.
We could have had both — and, in fact, still can — but today’s events continue to tie us to the past even as the world and markets are shifting under our unsteady feet.
Out of touch
For example, an aggie Twitter discussion in late March centered on whether a 570-horsepower, $500,000 tractor was powerful enough to pull a pictured, $565,000 corn planter through the field at 10 miles per hour.
Astonishingly as out of touch as that might seem, the chat occurred only three days after Congress and the White House empowered the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to spend nearly $49 billion to support farmers and ranchers through the COVID-19 infected season ahead.
And that deal arrived only hours after the biofuels industry warned Washington that the ethanol market, which consumes about 40% of the U.S. corn crop, is facing crippling shutdowns as it tries to ride out what already is a demand-devastated year.
Then, the USDA announced March 31 that American farmers would plant 97 million acres of corn this year. That’s an 8% increase over 2019 despite ethanol’s bleak future and growing evidence that other nations are shutting their markets to protect pandemic-threatened food supplies.
So, while USDA prepares to spend nearly $50 billion subsidizing domestic agriculture, corn farmers (some with $1-million-plus planting rigs) are preparing to grow a record crop at record subsidies for a government-protected ethanol market already melting as other markets around the world begin to shut down.
The only way any of these actions make actual sense is to remember that the world has changed dramatically in the past month but human nature hasn’t. Signs abound everywhere.
We continue to hoard food despite knowing there’s plenty for everyone if no one hoards.
We don’t stay home despite knowing COVID-19 is rapidly spread by people who don’t stay home.
Our weak, shortchanged rural systems like education, Internet infrastructure, and a long-failing healthcare network are now being shown for what they always were: weak, shortchanged and long failing.
And, even worse, few political leaders answer straight, honest questions with straight, honest answers. Some can’t even muster the courage to shut down golf courses to limit the spread of the disease.
Golf courses, for crying out loud.
One of the more sane voices I’ve heard in the last 10 days came from a farmer who, like me, questioned the size, cost and wisdom of the massive corn planter we both saw on Twitter.
“I wonder,” he asked in a retweet, “what the price of corn would be if we still had 8-row planters?”
We may find out soon because we know the worst of COVID-19 is still ahead, and we have little idea what it will bring other than more woe.
Nor do we know how USDA will spend billions of our dollars to address the unknowns facing farmers and ranchers as another planting and calving season begins.
It will, however, require more thought than just throwing money at fading industries and bloated monocultures. We must consider paths that deliver more resilience and more food, not fewer farmers and more exports.
So far our strategy is very discouraging. Tossing out longstanding environmental laws and laying aside corporate merger issues now is just pouring salt into our gaping wounds. It’s shameful and almost as harmful to rural America as COVID-19.
One final note: You hold in your hands the product of caring professionals who believe in your right to hard facts and honest opinion. They don’t grind axes; they give you axes so you, not them, can decide the best way forward for your family and community. Please support them.
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