Does the U.S. economy need a rain dance?

October 11, 2012

“The weather forecast could have a big effect on America’s economic forecast next year. The more rain, the better.”

That was the lead sentence in a recent article written by Jim Tankersley, the economics correspondent for the National Journal.

Notice we didn’t say the “farm bill” correspondent, and Mr. Tankersley wasn’t just talking about agriculture’s economic forecast, but the nation’s as a whole.

That’s because late last month, after watching a record-setting drought creep across rural America, the Commerce Department revised its estimate of second-quarter growth for this year, lowering it from 1.7 percent to 1.3 percent.

Half the drop, Tankersley reported, came from plunging farm inventories due to crop loss during the drought.

In the United States, 21 million people work in the agriculture industry and related fields. Those 21 million people have jobs that depend, partly on unpredictable forces of nature, and partly on even less predictable market fluctuations.

Fortunately, America was built on the backs of farmers, so while many challenges facing the agriculture industry are unpreventable, hindsight has made them somewhat navigable.

Using this hindsight and having seen how widespread a farm disaster can be, Congress passed legislation decades ago that would provide a safety net for farmers. In doing so, they ensured that the rest of America would continue to have a stable, available and affordable food supply.

And it’s worked. Between then and now, we’ve had some really good years. Thanks to farm policy, farmers are more efficient, growing more food, fuel and fiber on much less land. We have the most affordable food supply in the world—spending only 9.5% of our income on groceries, and agriculture is one of the few U.S. business sectors to boast a trade surplus, exporting $132 billion in farm goods in 2011.

Recent debate surrounding the farm bill has shown that some believe because times have been good, we no longer need a farm policy. That U.S. farmers can survive this drought and future floods, freezes and market crashes without a solid safety net.

But when the economics reporter for the National Journal writes an article urging Americans everywhere to “pray for rain,” it’s no small gesture. U.S. agriculture does matter—to all 300 million of us.