2001

The Voice: Spring 2001

The Voice

Letter to the Editor


“Why would I mention that half the farm income came from the federal government,” asked a concerned Iowa farmer who called me after she read the alumni profile in the last issue of the Voice. She cited my passing reference in that issue in the article on the“Corn Cam.” She said that only ten percent of their income came from the federal government.

Didn't this give the wrong idea about agriculture? Doesn't the U.S. have “the best, safest and cheapest food,” she asked. Haven't farmers endured difficult times?

I think underlying her questions was a feeling of not being appreciated for her hard work. To me, the current situation with farm income represents at the least a red flag that deep problems exist despite billions of dollars in payments from the U.S. government. As someone who writes about agriculture and respects the work of farmers and the demands of consumers, I believe this issue merits more than passing attention. Ironically, I think these questions get so little attention because of the abundance of inexpensive food for most consumers. In a free market, people value scarce goods, not those readily and cheaply available. I also believe that the public--through the government and through the market--is not investing nearly enough in agriculture.

But why mention the income issue? During recent weeks, I have heard a university economist and a marketing advisor warn farmers that an urban-dominated Congress may look hard at the current level of government payments to farmers. Last October, Dan Glickman, then the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, noted that nearly half of (net) farm income had come from the federal government. Glickman said he did not begrudge farmers the assistance, but said the level indicated a need for improving U.S. farm policy. In Iowa during the 1990s, an average of 54.68 percent of net farm income came from direct government payments, says Mike Duffy, Iowa State University Extension farm management specialist.

I mention this not to castigate farmers. One of the huge issues farmers and others face in a global economy is making long-term investments in land, machinery, and buildings even as capital becomes more and more mobile. Many farmers still feel the effects of the 1997 Asian financial crisis that cut ag exports.

Writing about problems is easy, but where do you start with solutions? In fifteen years of covering agriculture, one question sticks with me. Rudi Buntzel of the Protestant Farmers Association of Wurrtemberg, Germany, said the association's members ask, “who is my neighbor?” That question, which Christ posed in the parable of the good Samaritan, remains relevant today.

In some respects, the issue about government's spending on farm payments is not so much the money itself. It's a matter of seeing whether the good of the public is being advanced, whether people who farm receive a just return for their efforts, whether the earth God created is being cared for. It's a matter of creating and maintaining healthy rural and urban communities, asking whether farmers have a sound footing in a rapidly changing global
economy, stopping to ask who will care for elderly citizens if fewer farmers live in our rural communities.

There are other signs of problems. Recently, a news release from the European ag corporation, Syngenta, announced its donation of $500,000 to U.S. food banks. According to Syngenta, poverty rates in Iowa's rural farm counties are twenty-two percent higher than in metropolitan ones. Why is this so in a state that is first in the nation in production of corn, soybeans, pork, and eggs?

Syngenta made its donation to America's Second Harvest, a food bank which says that about twenty-eight million people rely on food banks for their food. That's one in every ten. It's also about the population of Canada. This points up a troubling paradox. Food is relatively inexpensive, with U.S. consumers spending eleven percent of disposable income on food. But it still isn't cheap enough for people relying on food banks.

The U.S. public has financially supported farmers through repeated disasters due to weather and economic downturns. Farmers have worked hard to provide safe and healthy food which most of the public can afford. Yet this contract between farmers and the public seems to be fraying. How long will the public continue its support? How long will farmers and their children remain in a difficult profession?

With a strong agricultural department and alumni who farm in the United States, Canada, and overseas, Dordt is in a unique position to address some of these issues. Coming up with answers is difficult, but the questions are worth asking. As the bumper sticker on many a farm pickup says, “If you eat, you are involved in
agriculture.”

Dan Zinkand is a 1981 graduate of Dordt College.

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