As the president of a non-advocacy organization, my focus is on informing the debate with comprehensive, objective information, rather than shaping the political landscape. I rarely watch Congressional debates and votes. Yesterday was an exception, as I watched the last hours of the House farm bill debate streaming from CSPAN on my computer screen. As it became clear that the bill was going to fail, I kept asking myself if this was the end of an era or only a bump in the road. In search of an answer, I e-mailed a number of Farm Foundation Trustees, Round Table members and friends to ask their perspectives.
It is impossible to include every response but here are a few reactions:
Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: “…If we climb out of our bubble and start looking at the world the way the majority of the public sees it, it could be a bump in the road. But if we respond by climbing deeper into our bubble and thinking that what plays in these very tight knit circles plays well to the rest of the country, we are in serious trouble and it could be the beginning of the end.”
Former NRCS Chief Bruce Knight: “We are now at a fork in the road—will leadership in the House of Representatives tack to the center or tack to the right to gain the votes for final passage of a farm bill? The farm /nutrition alliance that has successfully moved previous farm bills appears to be unraveling. I fear that if this continues neither meaningful reforms of nutrition programs or farm programs will be achieved.”
Kansas State University Economist Barry Flinchbaugh: “…This Congress has not read the Constitution. They do not understand [that] this is a republic that cannot function without politicians of goodwill who are willing to compromise on behalf of the people. Members of this Congress put their re-election and party above the country.”
Vermont dairyman Robert Foster: “The ag community is justifiably concerned but the rest of the community thinks food will always be there and nostalgia is better. Local is great but how does that feed the rest of the world. The disconnect is sort of a big sink hole that really needs to be fixed. Social media and the demand for instant conclusions have outpaced patience, peer review and fact checking.
Kansas farmer Jay Armstrong says: “People are beginning to think more about their food, what they eat, and where does all that money the government spends on the farm bill go. This is good as it opens up the opportunity for conversations about food and agriculture. The sad part is the lack of objectivity in explaining issues to our lawmakers and decision makers.”
Alabama farmer Larkin Martin: “In failing to establish a comprehensive farm policy, Congress is forcing farmers, rural residents and individuals across the country who face economic hardships to drive their lives without any traffic rules. It is a gross dereliction of duty by our elected members of Congress.”
Former USDA Agriculture Secretary John Block: “A failure like this will put more pressure on the Congress to do something. A lot of people will complain that [Congress needs] to get something done. This was not that hard. Once they come back from recess, they might have a different perspective.”
Since Thursday’s vote, the press and blogosphere have focused on partisanship, political dysfunction and failure of leadership. Analysts have focused on the high profile issues of food stamps, dairy and crop insurance as the source of conflict. I believe there is another critical element in the failure of the House to pass a Farm Bill. Demographic and cultural shifts, combined with increased specialization and consolidation in the farm sector, have disrupted the political equilibrium which fueled bipartisan, omnibus Farm Bills for nearly half a century.
Disintegration of this political equilibrium didn’t happen overnight. It is just that many people didn’t see it happening! As California farmer Ralph Grossi wrote: “My feeling is that the beginning of the ‘end of an era’ in farm policy was actually the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill. This is just an acceleration of the process.”
Where do we go from here? While the short-term prospects for passage of a multi-year omnibus Farm Bill appear dim, short-term patches will undoubtedly be found to deal with the most critical problems created by the expiration of the 2008 law.
The real challenge is how do we find a new equilibrium to support agricultural policy for the 21st century. Iowa farmer Varel Bailey, an eternal optimist, notes: “...In the past, some of the major changes in policy have happened at times of a near impossible political situation.” The years 1862 and 1933, come to my mind.
California producer grower A.G. Kawamura echoed that sentiment: “The future of agriculture depends on this new breed of producer and regulator who can align on goals and progress to deliver the multiple results of food, feed, fiber and ecosystem benefits. We have a great opportunity to change the dialogue.”
Farm Foundation has begun that work with its initiative, A Dialogue on Food and Agriculture in the 21st Century. The Dialogue Project creates opportunities for the diverse mix of stakeholders in today’s agriculture and food system to have civil discussions on critical issues shaping the future. These are opportunities to listen, learn, share ideas and, perhaps, find common ground to achieve workable solutions.
In less than 40 years, demand for agricultural output is expected to double. It’s time to put aside politics and get to work. The Dialogue Project is doing just that.