Last week, I had the privilege of sitting with three former Secretaries of Agriculture: Bob Bergland, Jack Block, and Clayton Yeutter. All three were instrumental in guiding American agriculture through some of its darkest times and setting the stage for some of its most profitable times. The stories they told of the land market in the 1970s, the Russian grain embargo, and the move from subsidies to market-oriented farm programs was inspiring, instructive, and scary. As they talked, I realized how similar our issues are today and how we lack the tools they had to deal with these issues and solve the problems.
Clayton Yeutter was telling the story of getting the Canadian Free Trade agreement (later to become the North American Free Trade Agreement) through the Senate. Just prior to a critical vote, a Republican Senator changed his mind and announced he was going to vote against the treaty. This would have sent the largest free trade agreement in US history down in flames. Yeutter recalled how two Democratic Senators changed their votes and supported the treaty even though it meant a victory for President Reagan. Given the current state of affairs in Washington, would that happen today?
While discussing the Russian grain embargo which devastated U.S. exports for years, lost a major grain customer for U.S. farmers, and impacted U.S. exports for more than a decade, Jack Block told how aggressive he had to be in fighting with the State and Defense departments to get the embargo lifted. In the end, it was Block’s tenacity and his credibility as a hands-on farmer that won the day. It was Kansas Senator Bob Dole who had convinced President Reagan that he needed a working farmer to head the USDA. Today the top job at USDA goes to career politicians as political favors. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack was governor of Iowa as well as a major fund raiser and vote getter for President Obama during his first campaign.
The conversation took place the day after Election Day. Bob Bergland, who served under President Carter, was optimistic Congress would pass a Farm Bill during the lame duck session. Block and Yeutter, both Republicans, were optimistic that a Farm Bill would eventually be adopted , but both felt this would not happen until next spring or perhaps even longer. All agreed that, despite the many successes and advances in agriculture production and policy, there remains very little understanding or appreciation for agriculture in Washington.
For example, in the past 10 years agriculture has helped reduce our dependence on imported oil for gasoline from 60% to 40%. Agriculture is one of the very few sectors has created jobs during the current recession — without a government stimulus. Investments by farmers in conservation structures on the East Coast helped minimize damage from hurricane Sandy, and biotechnology crops helped corn production to top 10 billion bushels even during the worst drought in 80 years. As U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, one of the few enduring signs of the U.S. presence will be the rebuilding of its agriculture production and education system by Midwest National Guard troops.
While agriculture has made a contribution in solving some of today’s biggest problems, leaders inside the beltway have not bothered to learn from agriculture’s successes nor have they been interested in addressing some of the problems that will adversely impact agriculture in the future. Our failure to learn from the past while gridlocked about the future is a recipe for failure.
by Gary Truitt