D.C. fiddles while the Midwest burns

This special guest Farm to Fork blog was written by Bill Bruins, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. This phrase has come to epitomize those who occupy themselves with unimportant matters while neglecting priorities during a crisis. It’s an old story with a painfully real message for the present day.

Instead of passing a U.S. farm bill, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are consumed by election-year politicking and posturing. Meanwhile, the worst drought in decades is gripping the throat of the nation’s breadbasket. Right now, D.C. is fiddling while the Midwest burns.

The great equalizer

It wasn’t so long ago that some pundits were questioning whether Congress should even bother writing another U.S. farm bill. They pointed out that prices for most farm commodities were strong. Another spring had arrived early in the Midwest and a record-sized corn crop was being planted. Agriculture was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary economy. The federal government was (and remains) awash in red ink. Why not just do away with the farm bill entirely?

There were several problems with this line of thinking.

First off, 84% of farm bill funding goes to feed over 40 million Americans through food assistance programs. It’s because of the farm bill that Americans enjoy a healthy and stable food supply and spend just 10% of their disposable incomes on food. That’s the lowest percentage in the world.

It seems every bill with any chance of passing must have the word “jobs” in it. Well, more than 16 million Americans work in agriculture, and the last time I checked, exports and renewable energy were worthy priorities too. Protection of our water and sensitive lands also comes from the environmental conservation programs found in the farm bill. With farm income at record levels, it seems some people thought there was no need for any sort of safety net. It was as if strong exports and technological advances had taken all the risk out of farming.

Then along came this summer’s drought and potential crop yield losses of epic proportions.

Sometimes Mother Nature feels the need to grab us by the ear and remind us who is really in charge. She’s doing just that, and agriculture’s ear is beginning to bruise. Farmers who entered this growing season with the highest of expectations are now questioning whether they will have adequate feed supplies to last them through the winter. That’s just one of many responsibilities that individual farmers accept on their farms.

Beyond the farm gate, they need assurances from their lenders that several generations of net worth will not be wiped out by one disastrous growing season. We could also use some kind of assurance from the same politicians who always say they want to help their constituents and the economy. Right now, farmers need to know what disaster assistance programs will be in place, which crop insurance programs will be offered, and how dairy policy reform will affect our dairies. We need action from our congressional representatives and not their hot air. Lord knows we’ve had enough of Mother Nature’s hot air to deal with this summer.

This drought has proven to be a great equalizer. Any talk of no longer needing a farm bill should have shriveled with this summer’s sizzling temps.

Last winter, it was American Farm Bureau’s ag policy wonk, Mary Kay Thatcher, who reminded Farm Bureau members that one of our challenges would be reminding Congress that farm bills are written for the bad years, not the good ones.

Well, Congress, the Midwest’s fortunes have quickly reversed from good to bad. How long will you fiddle while our family farms, food supply, and agricultural economy burn?

Bill Bruins is a dairy farmer from Fond du Lac County. He has served as the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s president since 2003.

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