Friday, December 01, 2006

Blue and Red and Green: The Politics of a Diverse Agriculture

Predictions as to how changes in Congress will affect farm policy reflect stark divisions within the agricultural community. "Agriculture" is divided in so many different ways, color coded political analysis is of little help. There are divisions along the lines of farm size and sustainability; program crops vs. non-program crops; northern vs. southern farming systems; livestock producers vs. feed grain producers; "traditional" farmers who use genetically modified seeds and chemicals vs. organic farmers. The list goes on . . .

Despite these divisions, many in the farming community still characterize political leaders as either friends of foes of "agriculture." Perhaps this is a nostalgic look back to the days when farmers vs. non-farmers meant rural vs. urban, or perhaps it is a political ploy to mobilize farmers to support one agenda or another. Or maybe it is just knowing your audience.

The Delta Farm Press website has a recent example. Hembree Brandon reports on the annual meeting of the Southern Crop Production Association and describes the speech by Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America, a trade association that represents agricultural chemical manufacturers, formulators, distributors. Vroom referred to the "big smiles on the faces of those who represent Midwest agriculture and grain farmers." Yet, in his remarks, it is clear that there is no smile on his face.

You might think that this would lead to a discussion of the divergence of American agricultural interests. No, Mr. Vroom consistently talked as though there are friends of agriculture and there are foes of agriculture, as if "agriculture" is one homogeneous group. Oh, and friends of "agriculture" are also friends of agricultural chemical manufacturers.

According to Mr. Vrooom:
  • "In the rankings for liberal Democrats, Tom Harkin, who will chair the Senate Agriculture Committee, is third only behind Boxer and Kennedy, which gives you an idea of the potential impact on policy that we face."
  • Yet, Debbie Stabenow, who was re-elected to the Senate from Michigan "is a very good friend of agriculture."
  • The defeat of Rep. Richard Pombo, Republican from California, was "a major blow to our agenda." And, "unfortunately for us, (Democrats) were big winners in California."
Particularly interesting is Mr. Vroom's concern about the defeat of Senator Conrad Burns of Montana, calling it "a big blow, because he's an old hand at standing up for what's right with agriculture." Yet, Mr. Burns was defeated by John Tester, a third-generation Montana farmer, shown here tossing a haybale on his ranch.

Mr Vroom's perspective here, of course, can be explained by the fact that the future Senator Tester is an organic farmer and is therefore not in need of agrichemicals.

I do not mean to criticize Mr. Vroom's politics or the appropriateness of his remarks to his audience. According to its website, "the Southern Crop Production Association was established in 1954 by pesticide formulators who foresaw the need for a regional trade association which would provide them with needed information and speak for the group at state and federal levels with one strong voice." Presumably, Mr. Vroom's listeners were right in tune with his concerns. But do the interests of the agrichemical industry define the interests of "agriculture"? And, isn't "agriculture" far more diverse than Mr. Vroom implies? Can't Senator Harkin or John Tester be a "friend of agriculture," too?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree with you completely, but with a caveat: organic farming. This sector of the farm community is a darling of the liberals. What is more, this sector makes its market by disparaging mainstream agriculture--all mainstream agriculture. That includes grain growers, meat & dairy producers, and all other forms of agriculture on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

Their model of "ideal" farm practices harks back to Victorian times and they avidly oppose any improvement in agricultural technology which has occurred since then. This includes nitrogen fertilizer and engineered crops.

It is true that the organic farmers and those with similar sentiments have very few captive votes, but with Democrats in the majority in both houses, these votes may become outcome-determinative on farm issues where earlier they had no chance of succeeding.

12/01/2006 6:21 PM  

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