With the repeal (or repeal-and-replace) of Obamacare being relegated to the back seat of the current administration for who knows how long, politicians and pundits alike are speculating on which issue will be next up on the “things to do while in office” list.
However, anyone who’s paid even the slightest bit of attention to action in Washington knows one thing that’s not on the radar and hasn’t been for quite some time: the current plight of farmers.
Is this a big issue? Aside from health care, it’s fair to say that the downward spiral of the farm economy probably eclipses just about every other issue impacting small towns. Is it imminent? Well, as they say down in Texas, “If it was a snake, it woulda bit ya.” That’s pretty imminent.
And yet, it seems that no one is paying any attention.
In February, the Wall Street Journal ran an article with the headline “The Next American Farm Bust Is Upon Us”, stating that farm income has dropped 50% in the last 4 years and predicting that, in the next few years, the number of farms in the United States will drop below 2 million—a number that hasn’t been that low since the great pioneer movement west of the late 1800s. The article sparked a few follow-up stories from a few other major daily newspapers but the interest died out almost before it began. The media, consumed with covering the White House, also missed a huge story when recent fires destroyed more than a million acres of farm and ranchland in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and part of Colorado. This wildfire was one of the largest in recent history, yet it got--at best--passing coverage and--at worst--no coverage, at all.
Granted, the unprecedented nature of this administration’s first 65 days has thrown everyone slightly off their game. But agriculture just doesn’t seem to be a priority. The Secretary of Agriculture was the last cabinet position to be appointed, and nominee Sonny Perdue of Georgia didn’t have confirmation hearings until a few days ago. Even Trump, who owes his election, in large part, to rural communities, has proposed slashing $498 million (21%) from the USDA budget by eliminating a program that helps fund rural businesses and clean water and sewer systems in small communities, reduces some USDA statistical services and cuts county-level staff. And this is on top of his vow to alter trade deals that have largely bumped up farm incomes. The combined effect is expected to take a serious toll on an already struggling rural economy. (Excuse me, Mr. President, but, sir, we’re a little confused out here. Just exactly which America were you going to make great again? )
It’s a less than pretty picture that begs the question, what’s a farmer to do?
Politics is a tricky business, largely made so by the politicians who practice it. But, at its core, it’s fairly simple and ruled by two basic principles. Number one: get into office. Number two: stay there.
The public is led to believe that we voters are our legislators’ constituency, and, yes, we sure are. But we’re not the only ones. Special interest groups—who finance campaigns—are also constituents. Fellow political party members—who barter in influence—are constituents, as well.
There’s great power in being a constituent. Two of those three groups have figured that out. Maybe it’s time the third group caught up.
Campaign contributions and legislative influence are both vital to political success. But the vote is the ultimate prize, for, without enough votes, ain’t nobody going—or staying—anywhere. And politicians know that, best of all.
Skeptics and cynics will quickly counter that politicians are going to do what they’re going to do, and, in the absence of an informed and active constituency, that’s probably true. But as Jason Chaffetz—the Congressman from Utah who introduced H.R. 621 which proposed selling off 3.3 million acres of “excess” federal land--experienced, an informed, active (and angry) constituency is about as easy to ignore as a two ton gorilla in your living room. Less than a week after he introduced the bill—a week filled with demonstrations outside his office plus thousands of tweets, posts on Facebook and phone calls to his office—Chaffetz withdrew the bill.
Is that an example farmers should follow? Perhaps not. The outcome of the American Agriculture Movement of the 1970s and 80s suggests that organized, long term and civilly disobedient protest is not an effective model for men and women who are, by nature, quiet, independent and reluctant to step outside the law. But the point is still valid: politicians listen when they think voter support is on the line.
The Tea Party might be a more fitting example. I’ll admit it; I am no fan of their politics, but their tactics have to be admired for their effectiveness. From the moment they appeared on the national scene, the group figured out that they needed a simple message easily conveyed that didn’t require large numbers of people to quit their job and devote themselves to “the cause” or, frankly, even miss much work. They just needed to make certain that a group of people—even as small as a handful—showed up at town hall meetings and drew enough attention to themselves that the media noticed.
And, as the attention of the media goes, so goes the attention of the American public and, eventually, the politicians, themselves. Even skeptics and cynics can’t refute that one. Besides, the proof is in the polling. Barely 11 years after the Tea Party was formed, they are now a political force to be reckoned with. Just ask Paul Ryan about that.
Despite the fact that agriculture is one industry that touches the lives of people every single day and the story of the family farm is almost iconic in nature, it is also one of the few industries in the United States that lacks a strong, consistent, highly visible, easily understood message that can be communicated succinctly to the public and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Instead, when food prices go up, farmers are blamed, even though they see none of the profit. When farmers experience “good years”, the fact that those good years are frequently followed by bad years seems to get lost in the public perception that farmers are constantly complaining. And the only time farmers get politically active is when times are tough, and things are in a downward spiral.
Well, times are most certainly tough. Things are in a downward spiral. So, maybe it’s time farmers got politically active.
How that looks will be largely determined by the farmers themselves. Whether it’s via tweet or text, attendance at a town hall or a re-enactment of the famous tractorcade of the late 70s, farmers need to make their voices heard and use their vote as leverage. With the midterm election getting closer every day, perhaps the folks in Washington should be reminded of that very wise old adage everyone’s grandmother said at least one time in her life. How did it go? Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Hmm. Now there’s food for thought.
PHOTO CREDIT JO FREEMAN. FIND THIS PHOTO AND MORE AT http://www.jofreeman.com/photos/Farmers79/Farmers.html