Where will ag spend Obama billions?

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The new president wants Congress to approve upwards of $800 billion in cash and tax credits by mid-February to, hopefully, stem the worst economic slide any American under 70 has experienced.

And that’s in addition to the yet-to-be spent $350 billion from the $700 billion, October 2008 bank bailout.

How do you spend $1.1 trillion to get as big a bang — jobs, public infrastructure, economic turnover — as quickly as possible?

Billions will be wasted

No one really knows but one outcome is fairly certain: billions will be wasted through either incompetence or fraud.

If 10 percent is wasted, that’s $100 billion; 3 percent waste is $30 billion.

Imagine what a wise investment of, say, $30 billion in U.S. agriculture could return today and tomorrow.

How about the lock and dam upgrades in the Mississippi and Illinois rivers? The long-planned project — talk of it began in 1972 — should be a slam dunk under the Obama stimulus package.

Congress authorized the work in late 2007 but never provided the $1.9 billion for the locks and dams (five on the Mississippi, two on the Illinois) and $1.7 billion for ecosystem preservation.

Wish list

House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson pieced together his modest $2.2 billion wish list for House appropriators a week before Inauguration Day.

It included $1 billion in rural development money for “rural water and waste water treatment systems,” Peterson noted in a telephone interview.

Peterson also asked for $1 billion in loan guarantees “for community banks and Farm Credit members to make sure farmers get operating loans” this spring.

Tom Buis, president of National Farmers Union, pushed the latter idea when ag bankers, themselves getting squeezed, began squeezing producers whose lines of operating credit were established before the meltdown last year.

“Everybody is nervous,” explains Buis, “so using some of the stimulus money to reassure lenders is wise.”

Peterson also asked for a $200 million loan to CoBank, the old Bank for Cooperatives, to help fund a dairy program already in place (called Cooperatives Working Together) to stem burgeoning losses to dairy farmers.

Blue ribbon panel

Daryll Ray, the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy at the University of Tennessee, would use a nickel or two — “$500,000 to $1 million,” he reckons — to assemble a blue ribbon panel (economists, sociologists, ecologists, historians) to recommend a strategic plan for the future of American agriculture.

“Farm bills never address strategic issues farmers and ranchers face in the coming 15 years,” explains the professor.

For example, he notes, 2008’s competition for grain among food makers, the ethanol industry and livestock producers benefited only corn growers, and then only briefly.

“What would a smarter policy, such as a grain reserve that could be drawn on by food, fuel and livestock growers, mean to long-term costs, profits and production to everyone, including consumers?” he asks.

What would it do for “rural communities, farm sustainability, the environment?”

Answers needed now

Answers to questions like that “are needed now so we can meet food challenges just 10 years from now,” notes Ray. “What are we waiting on? Money? We have it now so let’s do it now.”

C. Robert Taylor, the Alfa Professor and Eminent Scholar in ag policy at Auburn University, agrees.

“We badly need a plan for 21st century food, fuel, forestry and fiber production now,” offers Taylor.

“Today, we just throw money around; tomorrow, we may not have the money or the production if we continue our very unwise approach.”

They’re right

One of the wisest uses of the stimulus money would be to study, then chart, our food and fiber future.

In fact, it might be one of the few good things we still can leave our grandchildren.

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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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