Short of a farm bill vote, or a piece of agricultural legislation moving across the President’s desk for signature, big-city newspapers rarely focus on farm-related news. But that’s exactly what happened recently.
It began on October 23 when the Houston Chronicle credited crop insurance with saving “Texas farmers from ruin.” More than 41,000 farmers in the state had already received $1.65 billion in insurance payments from crop insurers to help offset low yields caused by the state’s worst drought in history.
The news report noted: “The drought has led to $5.2 billion in agricultural losses, according to Texas AgriLife Extension Service economists. Insurance claims don’t nearly cover the operating expenses but can at least keep farmers in business, they say.”
To drive home the importance of crop insurance, the Houston Chronicle quoted a high level USDA official charged with overseeing disaster relief efforts. “‘The crop insurance [policy] is the linchpin and heartbeat of recovering and muscling through the disasters,’ said Karis Gutter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s acting deputy undersecretary… ‘It will help folks get back to a semblance of normalcy in their lives.’”
In other words, crop insurance worked just like it was designed—as a public-private partnership that could speed privately delivered relief to farmers without tapping taxpayers every time disaster strikes.
Yet one day later, on Oct. 24, the Washington Post editorialized against crop insurance and other forms of farm policy, actually arguing for their elimination. Keeping farmers in business after disasters and other forms of farm policy are “a scandalous misuse of taxpayer dollars,” it claimed.
This stance seemed extreme even by the Post’s standards, especially given the highly publicized weather disasters across the country. The editorial actually tried to whisk away that farm policies represent just one-quarter of 1 percent of the federal budget and that agriculture has already been cut in previous budget rounds.
This was not lost on former Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest (R-TX), who sent the Post a rebuttal that read:
For you to mock the impending ramifications of an exploding world population, when already we have seen what happens to countries who are reduced to states of political and social chaos due to the lack of a stable domestic food supply, is irresponsible and downright wrong.
The ability to feed, clothe, and fuel ourselves is a national security priority, which is why respected figures like retired Army General Wesley Clark, have taken a stand in urging Americans to “hold the thin green line” of U.S. farmers with sound policies like the ones you so smugly distort.
Your editorial was right about one thing: The farming community has been asked to step forward before in the name of deficit reduction. It stood alone in making sacrifices, and what’s left is already arguably too weak to provide the protection that most farmers need if prices plummet or floodwaters rise.
Dana Peterson, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers, too took exception with the Post’s characterization of farm policy. And to make her point in a letter to the editor, she referenced another mainstream news article that appeared the same day in The Wall Street Journal.
“The Wall Street Journal reports the farm economy that has helped bolster the overall U.S. economy and keep the unemployment rate down is showing signs it is about to sputter,” she wrote. “I have always found your argument that U.S. farmers and ranchers should have to compete in a global market distorted by heavily protected and subsidized foreign competitors uninformed. But your new aim to also deny producers insurance is especially punitive.”
In its article, the Journal referenced the cyclical nature of agriculture and how the grain boom of the 1970s was followed by the crippling farm-debt crisis of the 1980s.
Will such a reversal of fortune surface again? Will agriculture be the latest bubble to burst?
That’s hard to predict, but one thing is for sure. If the Washington Post editorial board has its way, there won’t be much of a backstop to protect the country’s food, fiber, and renewable fuel supply if it does.