Some Thoughts While Waiting for the Farm Bill

by Bryan Bjerke
July 25, 2013

I just finished reading the biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham. Jefferson, in authoring the Declaration of Independence, laid out, in such straightforward, but beautiful language, the essence of America. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That work alone made Jefferson one of the great men in our history. But there was so much more. Jefferson was also a consummate politician, statesman, diplomat and scholar. He was also a farmer, as were many of the Founding Fathers. Jefferson had a love for the land and for agriculture that made him a standard-bearer for American farmers. Where is Thomas Jefferson when we need him today?

Jefferson, speaking to his dear friend James Madison, said, “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural.” Maybe that’s part of our problem these days, as our government seems, in most cases, to be quite far removed from agriculture. Which brings to mind the current debate over the Farm Bill and the need for understanding and education about agriculture.

When the first Farm Bill was created in 1933 it contained provisions for the storage of surplus harvests, conservation and support for farmers who were hit hard by the Dust Bowl. That was it. There have been 15 more Farm Bills since that time, dealing with a growing number of issues and growing more complex.

While we wait, and wait, and wait for the next round of Congressional action on the Farm Bill, it may be a good time to consider the reality of agriculture as it relates to the Farm Bill, removed from the political debate. The headlines about the Farm Bill change from day-to-day. What doesn’t change?

Crops continue to grow and mature. Some farmers are harvesting another cutting of hay, while others are wondering where they can get the best bargain for hay to feed their drought-stricken herds. Dairies are producing and marketing milk. Livestock producers care for and raise healthy animals. And they all continue to monitor the markets to find the best options. The industries that surround them continue to create food and fiber and fuel to keep this country and the rest of the world fed and running. Farmers, agriculture and agribusiness keep working, despite the uncertainty. And that constant work provides a significant benefit to our economic recovery and growth.

The government’s disconnection from farming, agriculture and agribusiness continues to grow. Of the 541 current members of Congress, there are 17 farmers, 15 in the House, 2 in the Senate and 11 ranchers, 9 in the House, 2 in the Senate. It’s a reflection of the country in general. The 2007 Census of Agriculture showed that more than one-third of U.S. House of Representatives members represent fewer than 1,500 farmers in their districts.

The statistics don’t get any better when it comes to the general population. According to government statistics there are nearly 315,000,000 people living in the United States. Less than one percent claim farming as an occupation. While consumers become more and more concerned and involved in food quality and food safety issues, their awareness of where their food comes from continues to lag behind. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from a cornfield.” That’s where ag marketers and ag communicators come in.

It’s not a simple story to tell. At least it doesn’t appear to be. Agriculture is a deeply diverse industry. And the Farm Bill reflects that, with 15 different titles ranging from Commodities and Conservation to Forestry, Nutrition, Trade and Taxes. But the human elements of farming remain constant. That’s where the real story of agriculture needs to be told, in relatable, human terms. There are good efforts all around: Farmers young and old, blogging, Tweeting, finding Facebook friends, telling their day-to-day story and inviting consumers to come see what they do. Ag journalists and marketers continue to tell interesting stories and find unique ways to sell the products and services.

So we will continue to send messages and information in hopes of finding a way into the larger consumer consciousness, creating a consensus that agriculture is essential to us all. Maybe then the indecision and indifference over the Farm Bill will come to an end. In the meantime, you can count on the fact that farmers and agribusiness won’t be sitting around, waiting for word from Washington. There’s work to be done.