By Gary Truitt
Last week Vice President Mike Pence came to the Lamb Farms, Inc.in Boone County, Indiana to listen to what farmers had to say about the USMCA trade agreement. At least that was the spin from Washington. In reality, this was a media dog-and-pony show designed to put pressure on Congress to get off their duffs and take action on the important trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. A cross-section of about 50 farmers, all specially selected and most personally known by the VP from his days as Governor and Congressmen, were trotted out in front of the media to give well-rehearsed speeches to Mr. Pence who looked serious and concerned and repeated, “I hear you” over and over. After this charade, the VP then made a few remarks in which he reaffirmed the Trump Administration’s commitment to USMCA and blamed Congress for the lack of ratification.
It was not until after the program that anything of substance took place. As the media was held in a separate secure area under Secret Service guard, Mr. Pence posed for a group photo with the farmers and things really got interesting. Those in attendance then had a chance to talk freely and candidly with the Vice President without the spin doctors managing things. While I don’t know what was said, I do know that most of the farmers I spoke with afterwards felt they had made their real concerns known and came away feeling like their voices had actually been heard.
If Pence was really listening, what he heard was a call for action on a wide variety of farm issues currently being ignored by Washington. Repeated over and over by those in attendance, both in the public and private conversations, was a sense of urgency. The farm economy and many farming operations are in bad shape financially. For at least the 3rd year, and for some even longer, farmers are burning their equity to keep the farm going. This is a nice way of saying they are spending their savings to pay bills and feed their families. Many younger farmers have already gone beyond this and are in debt or not farming at all in 2019 because they cannot get the credit they need.
Add to this the natural disasters that have befallen many farms in the western and northern Cornbelt. Yet, a disaster relief bill is stalled on Capitol Hill, USMCA has seen no action for almost 6 months, steel tariffs remain in place, the EPA continues to pass out exemptions that allow oil refiners to stop blending ethanol, U.S. farm exports become uncompetitive as Japan implements TPP, and trade talks with China drag on. Action on any or all of these items would provide a stimulus to the ag economy and boost commodity prices.
The irony is that all of these were caused by the policies and actions of the Trump Administration and the inability of Congress to do anything but snipe at each other across the political aisle. If Mr. Pence really wanted to demonstrate empathy to farmers, he would tell his boss to spend a little more time fostering demand for U.S. farm products and a little less time obsessing about the Mexican border. If the Democrats in Congress really wanted to show their policies are better than the President’s, then they should drop their opposition to disaster aid and work with the GOP to adopt USMCA.
As farmers go to the field this spring to plant a new crop without quick action to improve the farm economy, it may be the last crop for many — especially those in the next generation. Speaking at Purdue last week, Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “You’ve got parents out there that have children here at Purdue or other universities that aren’t sure they want their children to come back [to the farm] because of the rigors of economic stress that we’re going through right now.” The circus at Lamb Farms was an attempt to put lipstick on a pig.