Having the right person in the right place at the right time can make all the difference between success and failure, just ask any quarterback or anyone in agriculture. There comes a time in every game when a ball must be caught, a vote must be cast, or a deal made. If the individual who makes the catch or casts the vote is on your team, you win; if not, things go the other way. For the past 8 years, Indiana agriculture has had such a key player on our team; but, last week in Washington, we did not.
For the past 8 years, Becky Skillman has been the Lt. Governor of Indiana and the Hoosier State’s first Secretary of Agriculture. Prior to her election along with Governor Mitch Daniels, Indiana did not have a secretary of ag or even a department of agriculture. They campaigned on a platform of pro-agriculture and, within months of taking office, reorganized state government to not only include an ag department but one dealing with rural communities and economic development. This was just the beginning of a strategic plan that included growth in the livestock sector, jumpstarting the biofuels industry, and marketing the state’s considerable hardwood resources. For the next few years, Indiana agriculture found itself in the unique position of being at the top of the state’s priority list and having a Governor and a Lt. Governor who not only strongly supported ag but were not afraid to talk about it — even in non-farm circles.
Governor Daniels visit a modern hog farm, the first time that had happened in several decades; and Skillman led a trade mission to Central American, making Indiana the first state to do so after the Central American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. This kind of nonstop promotion of agriculture continued for the remainder of their term. What made this even more significant is that their support of agriculture was not born out of political necessity or convenience. Daniels and Skillman did not have to do the things they did or say what they said in order to curry the support of Indiana agriculture. While the issue of property tax reform strained the relationship, the ag community never really fell out of love with Mitch Daniels and Becky Skillman.
This was due in part to the fairness and honesty they used when dealing with agriculture. They never threw agriculture under the bus for political expediency, unlike what happened in Washington last week. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the US Senate threw agriculture under the bus in order to get a fiscal cliff rescue package passed. For the past 2 years, Congressional ag leaders from both parties have worked hard to craft a comprehensive Farm Bill. The measure provided much needed reforms and contributed billions of dollars toward cutting federal spending. It was not perfect and did not enjoy universal support, but it was a reasonable compromise that passed the Senate and could have passed the House if brought to a vote.
House passage never happened because we lacked that key player in the right place. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack tried to blame House GOP leaders for the lack of action but this was just political posturing, which is about the only contribution the USDA and the White House made to the Farm Bill process. The reason the House never voted on a Farm Bill was that it was just not a high enough priority for those in leadership positions. In fact, the same thing can be said for the Democratic-controlled Senate. Senate Ag Committee chairman Stabenow pushed her bill through committee and through the Senate before the election, but her heavy-handed management of the bill was its ultimate undoing.
Southern farm interests who favor the continuation of direct payments were sidelined in the Senate process, but they waited in the wings and, in the end, had the right man in the right place at the right time. According to the Washington web site Politico, “In the final hours, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow found herself pushed aside in favor of legislative language generated by the office of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a bit player and frequent ‘no’ vote when the Senate adopted a more comprehensive five-year farm bill last June. McConnell’s role in the tax talks gave him immense leverage, while Stabenow was hurt by committee infighting over her efforts to write a more comprehensive farm bill extension that included changes in the dairy program. The upshot is a victory for Southern agricultural interests with the greatest stake in a costly system of direct cash payments.”
This scenario also points to a political reality to which all of agriculture needs pay attention. Most of the lawmakers had no interest in passing a Farm Bill until media reports of $8 milk prices surfaced. Then the politicians figured out that, if they did not do something about agriculture, they would have to explain to voters why milk prices would double in a matter of weeks. We in agriculture cannot count on widespread Congressional support unless it is something that impacts consumers.
A few weeks ago, Vilsack got a lot of flack when he called rural America “irrelevant.” A poor choice of words but he was correct that, for most in elected positions today, agriculture is irrelevant. Agriculture must begin to think more strategically when it comes to farm policy and programs. We also need to find our key players, the individuals who have the understanding and commitment not to throw farmers and rural American under the political bus. This means finding support outside of the ag committees.
Indiana is a case study in how having strong supporters of agriculture in high places can benefit agriculture and the state as a whole. Only when we can find this kind of leadership on the federal level will agriculture stop being a political football.
By Gary Truitt