A Calm Before the Storm?

Published online: Dec 30, 2010 The Hand That Feeds U.S.
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A recent Newsweek cover story titled, "Greetings from Recoveryland," mapped out the top 10 U.S. cities that have not only survived the economic recession currently affecting the rest of the country, but are emerging on the other side with a shiny new appeal. These "oz-like destinations" are not the metropolitans of the East and West coasts, but are perfectly situated in the center of the country, right between job growth and economic expansion. Several of the cities, including Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, and Des Moines, are referred to as the "Heartland Honeys" and are part of a region that is "well-positioned to take advantage of growing markets for agricultural commodities and farm machinery..." Why then, if agriculture is recognized as a rainbow in otherwise cloudy economic skies-supporting 21 million jobs and boasting one of the only trade surpluses of any US industry-are some still angling to gut the safety net that farmers depend on to shield against volatile world markets caused by heavily subsidized and protected foreign competitors and an unpredictable Mother Nature? Larry Combest, former Chairman of the House Agriculture and Intelligence Committees, offered some insight in a recent op-ed. "We know [America has] a debt problem, but we also don't want increased taxes or cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Defense, Homeland Security or Veterans which, along with our interest paid on the debt, amounts to about 86 percent of the budget," says Combest. That leaves a handful of other budget targets holding the bag, with opponents of farm policy hoping rural America will be easy prey. But Combest said that hardly seems logical since the farm safety net that underpins America's food, fiber, and an increasing fuel supply, accounts for less than a quarter of one percent of the budget. He used a household budget example to show just how futile it would be to balance the budget on the back of rural America. "If only 14 percent of your take home pay is disposable income and you have a $100,000 Visa bill to pay off, could you pull it off by skimping on the little things that are still important where skimping won't count, or will you take a look at the jumbo mortgage on a huge house, the luxury SUV, and your other fixed costs that leave you cash-strapped at the end of each month?" Combest wrote. Combest notes that the farm safety net has already sustained three separate rounds of cuts over the past six years-totaling more than $15 billion-and is one of the only policies to take cuts in the name of deficit reduction. It seems odd to deal a blow to one of the few economic sectors creating jobs right now, especially while billions are being spent on stimulus plans outside of rural America. So far, the heartland, and the farmers and ranchers who prop it up, have weathered the storm of the recession. But what does Mr. Combest think of rural America's role as safe haven? "Beneath this story is a fact that few know and less talk about," he wrote. "The current farm safety net is not equipped to deal with an economic crisis in farm country if one comes along." And as any farmer can tell you, crises inevitably come around. For proof just look back to the 1980s. Heading into that decade, commodity prices were up, farm incomes were on the rise, rural America was more prosperous than its urban neighbors, and there was a weakened farm safety net. Sound familiar? That story ended with commodity prices plummeting, high input costs leading to soaring debt, a farm policy that failed, and the biggest economic crisis rural America had ever seen...one which hit cities like Chicago as hard as towns like Salina. We've yet to reach the final chapter of the current story, but if past is prologue, putting the men and women who feed and clothe us on the financial ropes (again) wouldn't be smart. Oh, and by the way, it won't make a dent in the deficit. Editor's note: The Hand that Feeds U.S. is an educational resource for urban media on the importance of U.S. agriculture to the security and future of our country. The project will provide information relevant to our nation's farming industry, while also seeking to combat the current misinformation campaigns about food prices and renewable fuels. The American Sugar Alliance is one of the groups supporting this effort. Visit the website at www.thehandthatfeedsus.org for more information. We all need to pitch in to help educate others not directly involved in the agriculture industry who may have various forms of misunderstandings pertaining to the agriculture industry. More social media resources are available for The Hand That Feeds U.S. on facebook, YouTube, Twitter and videos on Vimeo.