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Rethinking Agricultural Policy, Again

This week began with the annual “Cattleman’s Association” banquet. About 200 attended from the farms and ranches of Pickens County, Alabama. Roast beef, of course, was served. As the leader of the other association in the county, the Baptist one, I was again invited to give the invocation. This is one of my favorite fringe benefits.

Like many rural counties the cattle population and the people population are about equal, both totaling 20,000 or so. The pigs post similar numbers, but poultry is a whole other matter with 25 million broilers raised annually. What a paradise for a Baptist preacher.

Some of the current popular diets for losing weight feature beef, so the year has been a good one for our cattlemen. But, while livestock is not directly impacted by the current discussions concerning cuts in the federal budget for farm subsidies, concern about these proposed changes was expressed by the featured speaker of the evening. This was because much of the grain covered by the subsidies is fed to cattle as part of the “finishing” process.

It does not seem that any producers in our county will be adversely impacted by the proposal to cap subsidies to any one producer at $250,000 per year. And it seems to be a common belief that those high payments go to large corporate farms in the west. These are not the “family farmers” who gathered at events like the cattleman’s banquet in Carrollton.

The concern I heard expressed that evening was that the federal government not “throw out the baby with the bath wash.” This is to say that in correcting abuses of the subsidy system that they not drive even more of the shrinking number of persons seeking to support themselves in agriculture from that endeavor.

Certainly the folk with whom I talked may have a vested interest in the survival of farm-based families, but they believe honestly that the nation as a whole also has a vested interest in their survival.

In various forms the folks at the table where I ate suggested the importance of the seven basic values that should inform agricultural policy:

–Safe and wholesome food, which must be available and affordable for all the residents of the United States.

–The supply of food produced within the United States must be of adequate volume to feed all of the residents of the nation.

–That prices for food commodities “at the farm gate” must good enough for a family to be able to achieve an income that will provide for their needs. And, given the vicissitude of weather, they must be provided with a “safety net” to help them get those the bad seasons.

–As stewards of most of the natural resources of the nation, the farm families must be able to practice good conservation practices.

–Stable and healthy communities must be developed and supported for the rural families to live within. Here the basic needs of residents can be secured.

–The needs and interests of all the segments of the food and fiber system in the United States be listened to and addressed in the process of developing agriculture policy, not just those with effective lobbyists and connections with powerful congressmen and senators.

–The end agriculture policy product must be characterized by fairness and justice for all everyone in the nation–producers, processors, distributors and consumers.

Certainly, this is a tall order. This is a list with elements within it that are in conflict with one another. The ideas of safe, affordable food and adequate income for farm families is one example of this.

Yet, one whose life is informed by the biblical ethic would find little here with which to argue. A recurring theme of the prophets has been “justice for the people of the land.” To do biblical ethics one must give attention to this set of issues.

Many of those who attended the cattlemen’s banquet have been in agriculture for 50 years and more. They have seen great changes. They have been survivors. They see themselves as blessed. But they have also experienced many injustices. My prayer that evening, among other things, called upon God, boldly, to work in the process of redesigning agricultural policy to bring justice and fairness to the people who care for this land.

I know that some in the room will be working with God toward this end. I plan to help. I hope that many who read this piece will also do what they can do.

Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.