Guest Opinion

Thursday, June 27, 2002

Farming and crime don't pay

When did farming transform from an occupation to a costly hobby? Is it possible to pinpoint a specific time when it became a waste of a farmer's time and energy to plant and harvest his crops?

The daily trials and tribulations a farmer must endure have begun to far outweigh his potential profit. Pride and a sense of accomplishment have been supplanted by despair and confusion. Why are prices so low? Why does that damned Iowa wind always blow the corn over? Better yet, who's to blame? The answer - the government and God - in that respective order.

It's evident that the questions facing farmers far outnumber the answers. It's pretty tough to argue with the Guy upstairs about why it's always so windy or the purpose of hail. In His defense, He's the same Guy who gives us the sun, rain and ability to farm.

But our government is another matter. The causes for such low crop prices - a perplexing stance on alternate sources of energy, a massive surplus and the global economy - can and should be attributed to the men and women in Washington D.C. They have sold out the American farmer.

It's an oft-assumed fact that human beings bleed red, but for some reason, I think nearly every politician in Washington bleeds black. More specifically, black gold. I can't really explain how the oil industry can have such an influence over American policies, except that money talks. Either that or they have incriminating photos of the Bush daughters doing keg stands at a family reunion.

Whatever the case, farmers find themselves fighting an invincible opponent with a never-ending pocketbook. The most heated current dispute is over ethanol. Bush has recently stated his hopes to increase ethanol use by way of an energy bill being formulated in Congress, but his economic advisors have taken a defiant stance. They claim that ethanol use would "increase consumer costs, may create supply problems and will have a disproportional effect on the Midwest and Southeast."

Oh, really.

Apparently, the economic advisors are so short-sighted they fail to comprehend the lasting positive effects a domestically produced gasoline additive could have on our country's inhabitants and how it would lessen our dependence on oil from other countries. In layman's terms, the report borders on idiocy.

For sake of time I'll try my best to quickly point out the glaring flaws in the report. First, increased consumer costs and supply problems would only be temporary. Ethanol doesn't have to be produced by corn; it can be produced from agricultural wastes, cellulose and other grains. Conceivably, an ethanol plant in Idaho could produce ethanol with potato wastes and supply California. Reduced cost of transportation would result in lower gas prices. All that needs to be done is to construct more ethanol plants. I don't see a problem with that plan, considering it would create jobs and eventually lower gasoline prices.

Second, the issue of a "disproportional effect on the Midwest and Southeast." The irony in this one actually made me laugh out loud. Am I mistaken, or didn't President Bush raise the tariffs on steel? Doesn't that have a disproportional effect on Pennsylvania?

Does that mean Pennsylvania is more important than Iowa? Not necessarily, but it does illustrate another pertinent pattern - our government's increasing tendency to place industry above agriculture.

The current global economy is a bit confusing, but since it has such a direct impact on low crop prices it needs to be addressed. Right now, there are two types of countries - developed and developing. Developing countries (Brazil, Argentina, etc.) do not have the technology nor informational background to make industry work. Thus, they are forced to produce raw goods for sale on the market, namely corn and soybeans. That is just what our government wants.

As long as developing countries are forced to produce raw materials and cannot produce manufactured goods, American industry thrives while American agriculture dies. Our industry can produce various goods of high quality, thanks to our technology. That gives them a decided edge over foreign competitors. But for farmers, all corn and beans are pretty much the same. In other words, crops from Brazil are just as good as crops from Buena Vista County.

If there was a demand for large quantities of field corn and soybeans, there wouldn't be a problem. But that's not the case. Rather, there is a surplus that could drown the entire country of Afghanistan. (Hey, I might be on to something there. Dropping bushels of corn on terrorist countries. They'd never see it coming!)

Unfortunately, I don't think the government has any better ideas on how to reduce the surplus. Why doesn't Bush implement policies to help American farmers like he did for steel companies? Maybe because Pennsylvanian has about fifteen more electoral votes than Iowa, and Bush narrowly lost Pennsylvania in the 2000 election.

As a politician, who would you try to appease - industrial states like New York and Pennsylvania or agricultural states like Iowa and Nebraska? But agricultural interests don't have to be abandoned to keep the support of the industrial sector. Increased ethanol use would lead to an increase in industry. But on the other hand, ethanol isn't a cure-all for corn prices. Ethanol can be made from other products. We need a significant long-term solution that will make farming a worthwhile occupation to support families.

It's hard not to be pessimistic. The only farm bill in recent memory merely rewarded big farmers and left small farmers to fend for themselves. Even more befuddling, as corn and bean prices have dropped, the cost of seed, chemicals, fertilizers and land have all either remained at the same level or risen. That doesn't make sense.

It's time our government recognizes the tradition and necessity of American farmers. Our country was founded and maintained by the hard work of cultivators of the land. Farmers are America's backbone. For some reason, though, the government seems intent on breaking its own back.

Kenny Kolander, Albert City, is a writer and a history student at Simpson College.