The history of American agriculture is full of examples of the federal government taking action to threaten the financial livelihoods of farmers. For example, there was the tax of 1791. The so-called “whiskey tax” was the first tax imposed on a domestic product by the newly formed federal government and was intended to generate revenue for the war debt incurred during the Revolutionary War. The tax applied to all distilled spirits. Farmers of the western frontier were accustomed to distilling their surplus rye, barley, wheat, corn, or fermented grain mixtures into whiskey. These farmers resisted the tax. President Washington sent in the army to force compliance with the tax. Fast forward to the next century and to the financial crisis of 1873. Falling crop prices, increases in railroad fees to ship crops, and Congress’s reduction of paper money in favor of gold and silver devastated farmers’ livelihoods and caused the birth of the Grange movement. Grangers gave their support to reform-minded groups such as the Greenback Party, the Populist Party, and, eventually, the Progressives. While the movement had many notable accomplishments, their two main objectives — better regulation of railroads and grain elevators — went largely unrealized. And, let’s not forget the Carter grain embargo in 1980, which took a robust farm economy and turned it upside down — virtually overnight.
Today, as farmers face critical financial hardships, overreaching government regulations, and international trade disputes that take profits out of their pockets, limit their growth potential, and threaten their future, Washington is more interested in political posturing and social ideology than in taking action to address the needs of American agriculture.
After 3 years of listening to farmers and 3 days of floor debate, the U.S. House voted down a new Farm Bill. The surprise defeat had nothing to do with what was in the bill, but had to do with political grandstanding by a group of 30 lawmakers known as the Freedom Caucus. This small, radical group has made immigration their one and only issue and will block any legislation until the House deals with their issue. House Speaker Paul Ryan has also engaged in some political grandstanding by forcing a Republican-only Farm Bill through committee, insuring he would have no Democratic support on the floor. A more bipartisan approach might have been able to neutralize the impact of the Freedom Caucus.
So now farmers face the prospect of no new NAFTA agreement, no new deal with China to avert a 25% tariff on U.S. soybeans, no action of making E-15 saleable year round, no permanent fix to the WOTUS rule, and no new Farm Bill with a safety net to help producers manage risk. The current Farm Bill is set to expire on September 30. The defeat in the House makes it likely that deadline will not be reached.
Farmers had been promised an “on-time” delivery of the Farm Bill by GOP leadership. This in contrast to the last the last Farm Bill which was voted down by the House over the issue of food stamp reform. While there have been changes in the House and the White House in the past 4 years, that has not changed is the willingness to ignore the needs of agriculture and use farmers as political pawns.
In the last election, we saw that rural America can have an impact on the political process. We need that kind of attitude now to insist that we are no longer ignored.
By Gary Truitt