“I don't get it, but I understand it,” is a phrase worthy of legendary baseball sage and manager Yogi Berra. But that brilliant piece of wisdom was actually shared with me recently by a young Wyoming rancher. And, boy, was he right!
We were talking about the fact that it was strange just how little the farm bill has to do with agriculture any more. We were discussing the many different outside groups weighing in on the current farm-policy discussions. This includes the labor unions, and even radical groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
He had recently read a statement from the head of HSUS commenting on his group's efforts to ally with environmental, public health and union movements to challenge corporate agriculture. However, one needs to parse these groups' usage of the term “corporate agriculture” because they really mean agriculture in general.
It's like trade. Nobody will ever admit to being against trade; they say, “We support ‘fair’ trade.” It sounds good and it insulates them from having to defend an anti-trade agenda. But, in reality, they've never seen a trade agreement they support.
So it is with the groups opposed to corporate livestock production. They haven't found a livestock operation they like, either.
Strange fingers in the pie
The discussion with my young rancher friend led us to try to figure out why some of these non-ag groups would care about the farm bill. Sure, HSUS, Public Citizen and the like want to eliminate animal agriculture, but why would unionists care about packer ownership of cattle, for example?
The simple answer is, they don't. But they do care about other issues that these groups can help them with, which brings about the old quid pro quo type of arrangement. Politics can certainly create some strange bedfellows.
We might not understand why these consumer groups, animal right groups, environmental groups, labor groups and public health groups are uniting against us, but just knowing that they are is probably enough.
With less than 25% of the farm bill even related to agriculture these days, perhaps the “farm” bill should be renamed. The situation is emblematic of the retreat of agriculture's political clout, but it isn't just the farm bill where agriculturalists are losing their muscle.
The effect of political redistricting, and the ongoing shift toward a more urban population, has been downgrading agriculture's political capital and power for quite some time. But nothing speaks to our decline as a political entity more than the political caucus process currently underway in Iowa. In a state where total cash receipts for farm commodities in 2006 totaled $14.8 billion — the third highest in the country — agriculture has largely been ignored as an issue in selecting the political parties' 2008 nominees for president.
In fact, agricultural income in the U.S. will hit record levels in 2007, but even that was driven by a misguided energy policy based on hope rather than facts.
One farmer recently told me, “I used to laugh at the radical environmentalists and their unwillingness to accept the science. But Al Gore will likely do more to drive my profits than any politician of modern times, what with carbon credits and increased ethanol mandates.”
Yes, we understand it, but we just don't get it.
Troy Marshall is editor of Seedstock Digest, and a weekly contributor to BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly, a free weekly newsletter delivered by e-mail every Friday afternoon. To subscribe to BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly, which provides timely news, opinion and analysis of events and trends of particular importance to the cow-calf production segment, visit www.beefmagazine.com.