If it did nothing else, the farm depression of the mid-80’s has demonstrated that our current agricultural leadership is simply not quick enough to deal with all the monkey wrenches in a politician’s tool box. This is not surprising, since farm people are used to waiting and adjusting to growing seasons, to slower things, while the politicians contrive and connive with both eyes fixed on tomorrow’s headlines.
At least in the short run, politicians are nimble enough to manipulate farm boys (and girls) at will. Pegs on the cribbage board.
One of the television’s favorite farm ladies, a Mrs. Massey of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, told WMAQ radio in Chicago that people sending help to her family (after Tom Brokaw publicized their forced bankruptcy sale) “are angry with the government for letting this happen to our farmers.” Letting this happen?
When the farmers asked for lower taxes, Wisconsin Governor Anthony Earl—a quintessential Midwestern politician—responded by calling in the media and heading out into hip-deep January snow to “pick corn.” And a few years back, when farmers asked for “God’s Time” and a stronger voice in the legislature, the politicians gave them daylight saving, gerrymandering, and a vote for the numerous urban 18-year-olds. For more sauce on the pudding they changed the tax laws, brought in new assessors with new formulas, and reassessed the farmers. Farm taxes skyrocketed. Yet when rural land values plummeted 50 percent between 1980 and 1985, the lawmakers never got around to ordering another reassessment.
But there were conferences, mental health gatherings, hot lines, pamphlets, and politically sponsored “rap sessions” all over the rural boondocks. And while these things are as chancy as a lotto ticket for the farmers who expect some payoff, they are potential winners for those with the right political agendas.
Farm Bureau protests have been mere whispers in the wind. Poorly organized tax revolters went down like dominoes.
But newcomers like American Agriculture and Farm Unity Alliance, and old standbys, like the National Farm Organization and the Farmers Union are rediscovering the attractions of the “Command Economy.” Because these farm-labor organizations were so thoroughly politicized, they were easily “understood” by the left and quickly welcomed as part of the centralizers’ agrarian chorus.
When on February 24-28 Dan Rather and CBS sojourned to selected hustings to hear about Trouble on the Land from “the farm people themselves,” farmers were mostly silent. Larger forces, “La Forza del Destino,” many of them in one way or another propelled by the disproportionate power (and wages) of Big Labor, have crowded into the limelight, and so far few politicians have dared label them as part of the farm problem. It was painful to watch as Dan and the farmers he selected for interviews skirted the subject.
Viewers were told that even agribusiness yuppies with $100,000 tractors and combines and 5,000-acre operations considered themselves the victims of government loan agencies, banks, and the Secretary of Agriculture. Something unspoken, beyond reason, something ideological must be operating here.
On Monday Dan told us about an Iowa couple in hock for $600,000; in contrast, on Tuesday Dan showcased a successful rancher from Strasburg, Colorado. Left undiscussed were the reasons—except for sheer size—for the success of the Colorado ranch: Was it overpumping of aquifers? “Free” irrigation water? Instead, we were given threadbare snatches of Thomas Jefferson’s views, a one-liner from Hawkeye poet Paul Engle, a bucolic glimpse at Grant Wood and other landscapers.
Wednesday there were statistics on foreclosures and liquidations in LBJ country; Thursday, it was another success story, with California computers keeping herd on 1,600 cows, while hi-tech vineyards likewise flourish. No mention on Thursday’s program of massive tax subsidies for the water projects that benefit Western agribusinessmen, nor of how these subsidies hurt agricultural competitors in the riparian Eastern states and create new crop surpluses.
Dan introduced us to a young couple from Everly, Iowa (CBS never tires of Iowa, our Midwest Massachusetts), who are prospering because they borrowed big at a propitious moment (with help from parents), and to a second couple who are going under because they did the opposite.
On Friday Dan left Odybolt, Iowa, but listened in as other tall-corn activists warned that the day was coming when it would be “us against them.” One rural woman declared they “weren’t going to take it anymore.” Goodbye, goodbye, to American pie.
A “command economy” is in the works and on Tom Harkin’s desk. It doesn’t have to come to this, but the mindless momentum and reckless rhetoric of an election year are building up storms of ominous statistics and farm-belt hyperbole. No one, it seems. has the time or the ability to sort things out, to encompass and consider much that’s new.
It isn’t just interest rates and farm credit policies as Dan Rather suggested on his first segment of Trouble on the Land. It’s a hundred other things short-shrifted by the six o’clock bunch:
It’s the weather in Brazil and
Argentina; Soviet and Asian
grain buying schedules; the
Green Revolution and the
shrinking gene pool.
It’s Common Market subsidies
for European farmers who
export to the U.S.
It’s the obligation to practice
conservation on the land—to
be a steward as well as a
“bottom line” believer. It’s the
Ralph Nader scare tactics
which scare the hell out of
It’s the chemical and
agribusiness companies that
never get scared when they
ought to be.
It’s a popular mind-set that
assumes that cheap food can be
easily produced without lethal
chemicals and their occasional
It’s the ecological ignorance of
commentators like Dick
Gregory, who think the High
Plains should be parceled out
to the have-not multitudes.
It’s the mayor and the city
council who give lip service to
“green space” but whose tax,
spend, and growth policies
have made life impossible for a
farmer at the edge of town.
It’s the costs for everything the
farmer or rancher must buy.
And it’s the taxes!
It’s the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Irving R. Levine trotting out their well-publicized “food basket” follies (comparing the cost of a basket of staple food this year with what that same basket cost the consumer last year) without ever comparing the changing labor costs for these baskets of food. And we are never informed how much more it costs to build a tractor or a combine this year compared to last.
Escalated taxes and galloping farm costs—especially the labor costs—and low commodity prices are driving the farmers off the land, and they don’t have the political clout to stop it.
But like the welfare moms who can’t stop doing it, they got themselves in a bind of their own years back (precisely 50 according to John Block) when they assumed USDA planners had good long-range answers. Bringing political foxes in to rearrange the hen house was just asking for trouble.
Even so, many of them, especially Farm Bureau diehards, remain unabashedly entrepreneurial. But in the current Zeitgeist, these old loyalists find themselves defending eroding islands of free enterprise within a vast stream of subsidized collectivists with whom they are forced into an uneven kind of competition.
Some now argue that if there is to be no cap on costs, no limit on what the farmer has to pay for all the things he must buy, it is only fair, even logical, for him to put no cap on the price of food to the consumer. And if Congress can mandate a wage, why can’t it mandate a fair price for the things the farmer sells? Though it leaks like a sieve, this is the rationale that has begun to energize “union thinking” among once-conservative farmers across the country.
As if the farmer didn’t need another wild card in the wild game in which he now finds himself, entertainers, sports personalities, and airline pilots are suddenly buying the place down the road: Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Peter Fonda, Warren Spahn, lawyers, doctors, writers, editors—”farmers” all. The baseball star hauling down a million a year for pitching 30 games is out there in the off-season on his ranch, driving up the assessments of newly real-estated farmland for hapless neighbors who must live on crops the farm produces. Even things as inconsequential as professional sports are working their way into the multifaceted “farm problem.”
So Dan, we want you to know that we saw you and heard you. But next time we want something more profound, broad-scale, thoughtful, so we will know that you heard us—all of us.