What Are They Afraid Of?

April 24, 2012

Unfortunately, when it comes to getting out the facts on U.S. farm policy, the First Amendment may not be enough because some in the media have decided readers should get only one side of the story.

In the past, we have printed many letters to the editor and columns responding to an attack on farm policy that were never run in the paper to which they were sent.  Here are two more.

It seems to us that if the media is confident in the policy positions they endorse or want to foster healthy debate, what threat do dissenting opinions pose?

In response to a sharp critique of farm policy in an op-ed appearing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Dear Editor:

Your opinion piece (New farm bill has growers lining up at the trough) misstates important facts while overlooking others.

The assertion that farm policies being contemplated under the 2012 Farm Bill would cost more than the current set of policies is wrong.  The House and Senate Agriculture Committees are expected to write a Farm Bill – which includes nutrition, conservation, and farm policy – with a level of cuts that would greatly exceed what the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission called for.

It is true that environmental extremists and libertarian think tanks in Washington do not like U.S. farm policy and they twist and turn facts and figures to persuade editorial boards that their cause is just and their motives pure.  I would simply encourage readers to follow the money to gain a clearer sense of what may be driving their positions.  For instance, there has been significant news coverage of the fight by big money interests to control the CATO Institute, a leading critic of farm policy.

We have seen in political campaigns how enough money spent on negative ads could turn a candidate’s own mom against him.  Money can distort but it cannot alter facts:  Agriculture is important to the U.S. economy, farm policy is important to U.S. agriculture, and U.S. farm policy is cost-effective.

According to sources ranging from The Wall Street Journal to the Federal Reserve, agriculture has helped drive economic recovery through the past two recessions and is one of the few sectors of our economy that still works to reduce our trade deficit.  U.S. agriculture also ensures that American consumers pay less of their disposable income on food than any other consumer in the world.  We are reminded of the value of a domestic food supply when we read news stories such as the April 4 Bloomberg article citing rising food safety risks associated with imported foods, and the countless articles about the practical as well as national and global security implications of our planet one day in the not-so-distant future needing to feed 9 billion people using less land, water, and other resources.

With that kind of demand, why is farm policy necessary?  Without farm policy, farmers who borrow more money each year to produce a crop than most of us will borrow in a lifetime would have to do so without insurance and, without insurance, a banker is going to be very reluctant to make that farmer a loan.  Because crop losses are highly correlated, without federal involvement, companies could not offer and producers could not buy insurance.  Is crop insurance too rich?  Well, deductibles can run anywhere from 15% to 45%, and if the farmer’s expected production value for the year is understated when a policy is written, that deductible is even higher.  Crop insurance is necessary and it ought to be protected and improved.

Without farm policy, U.S. producers would also be left alone to face foreign subsidies and tariffs that two recent studies, conducted by Texas Tech University and DTB & Associates, say are high and rising even as the cost of U.S. farm policy is at record lows.  Despite this imbalance, a few years ago, U.S. trade negotiators had offered to concede 70% of remaining U.S. farm policy support in exchange for a meaningful reduction in foreign trade barriers, but that offer was rejected outright by huge agriculture-producing countries wishing to hold onto their big subsidies and high tariffs.

For all the ink spilled and money spent to tear down U.S. farm policy, it may surprise readers to know that farm policy amounts to just one quarter of 1% of the total federal budget, that farm policy has been deeply cut in 3 of the past 6 years, and that the 2012 Farm Bill is expected to make a new round of cuts that will exceed the cuts recommended by Simpson-Bowles.

I think it is time for editorial boards and readers to begin asking the tough questions of farm policy critics:  who exactly is funding you, how much are they giving, and how does that money figure into the public policy positions that you take?

Now that would be an editorial to read. After all, sunshine is the best disinfectant.

Sincerely, Larry Combest

Larry Combest, a Republican from West Texas, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1985 to 2002, including as Chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Agriculture Committee.

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In response to an opinion piece critical of crop insurance in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press.

Dear Editor:

Devore’s “The seed money of destruction” column is confused.

Obviously, the value of an insurance policy on a crop is higher than in 1997, the same as the value of a policy on your home.  Homes and crops are worth more.

Devore is right that crop insurance was once straightforward—a straightforward failure with low participation and coverage and supplemented by costly disaster programs.  Improvements that Devore dislikes increased participation and coverage and avoided Congressionally-passed disaster programs.  The revenue coverage I buy ensures that if I lose a crop I can still deliver on a contract if prices increase, just as homeowners increase coverage to match value.

Devore is also mistaken about crop insurance adding environmentally-sensitive land to farming and hurting beginning farmers.  Minnesota crop acreage is lower than in 1997 and, as a beginning farmer, I would not be farming without crop insurance because I could not get a loan (just like people need insurance to get a mortgage).

Devore saying crop insurance is second  in cost is like saying the 49ers eked-out victory over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.  No criticism of nutrition, but it cost 12 times more than crop insurance last year.

Devore’s real point is that if I mess up conservation compliance, even slight and unintentional, I should lose protection under the Farm Bill (which is the law) plus lose my insurance, which means I lose my farm also.

That is extreme.

Sincerely,

Grant Isrealson

Sugarbeet and corn farmer