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The Last Windrow: Thoughts about the farm bill

The Congress has just passed a new farm bill. After two years of haggling and posturing, everyone decided to decide to finally get along and get something on paper that each house and the president could sign. 

It seems that no one is truly happy with it, which makes me think it’s probably the best they could do. 

The general public’s eyes glaze over when they hear news about a farm bill. They would rather pay attention to the Super Bowl, the newest electronic gadget, the ups and downs of the stock market or how they are going to pay their propane bill this winter. Much more exciting things than a farm bill, and, seemingly, closer to home.

But, those who make a living on the land do pay attention. So do their bankers. So does the Board of Trade. When you’re borrowing money to put in the new crop, it gets serious nowadays. Farming has always been a tremendous gamble, and even more now. 

It’s not cheap to put in a row of corn or sew a crop of wheat or plant a field of soybeans. It’s not cheap to raise az steak or pork chop. Toss in the sky-high price of land and you know why there are bottles of antacid sitting in the medicine cabinets of most farmers. 

My years of growing up on a small farm were devoid of most government programs. I remember crop insurance coming into view sometime in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. Before that, you were pretty much on your own. If you had a crop failure, you had to find a way to survive until the next year. There were no support programs to help lessen the blow of a drought or a flood. You could purchase hail insurance, but that was about it. 

Our first experience with a government farm program came in the form of the Federal Soil Bank program in the late 1950s. At first, most of farm country couldn’t believe that they would get paid for growing nothing. They were paid for setting aside tillable land and planting those acres to sweet clover or some other cover crop.

To me it sounded like a great deal! We were going to get paid for growing nothing and we were going to get great pheasant cover as a bonus! What could possibly be better than that? 

Neighbors began signing up for the program and my dad decided to put a small portion of our farm in the Soil Bank. We had never sold crop on the market. The grain we raised was always fed to our livestock. The amount of land we put in Soil Bank was balanced by us raising more crop on the land that was left available.

In order to do that, we plowed up the “water-ways” that wound up and down the hills of our farm. Those grass pathways were in place to help stop soil erosion and I had a bad feeling as I pulled the plow through what had been a draw full of waving bromegrass.

We also decided to apply more fertilizer in the form of nitrogen to our remaining acres. Previous, we had simply spread the manure generated by our livestock. We also started to use insecticides to combat corn root worm, which came as a result of raising “corn on corn” in back-to-back years. Before that time, we had rotated our crops to keep the soil free of bugs. 

When the agent came out to our farm to measure the acres we had signed up for, he brought his measuring wheel with him. Up until that time, we didn’t have to deal with anyone looking over our shoulder at what we were doing with our farm. That all changed when the government programs came in. Now you were being watched for compliance. 

I didn’t really like that feeling and neither did most of our neighbors, but it was a requirement of this farm program.

Since those days, hundreds of farm programs have come about. When Ag Secretary Earl Butz uttered the phrase, “Get big or get out!” he was talking about the way farming was about to change nationwide. I never did like that guy. That phrase was at the beginning of the demise of what had been a small farm way of life. Now farming was going to be a business with all the trappings and requirements that went with it. 

The farm bill passed just a couple of weeks ago is loaded with programs from conservation to food stamps to guaranteed floor prices for grain and milk and a bunch of other stuff that comes under the heading of “Miscellaneous.” 

It is a complex piece of legislation that farmers and their bankers will have to sort through. It will come with a cost of billions of dollars. But, it is the price we are going to pay to insure that there is produce on the grocery store shelf. I think it is a result of the “Get big or get out” way of thinking. 

I wonder if the general public’s eyes would glaze over if they actually knew the implications and ramifications of the farm bill. They would, however, take notice if the meat and produce shelves at their local grocery store came up empty on Monday morning. That would get their attention. 

But, agriculture has always seemed to be a topic that not many people want to talk about. Digging in the dirt just seems too boring. 

A exciting new farm bill? Do you feel your eyes glazing over? You’ve got a lot of company. But, we should all probably breathe a sigh of relief that Congress finally passed one. 

See you next time. Okay?