Columns » John Brummett

Farming root of all politics



Farming root of all politics


Statewide elections usually are decided by Arkansas farm politics from the eastern part of the state.?For the most part, Arkansas Democrats have managed to remain knowledgeable about and sensitive to Delta farmers' issues — about rice, soybeans, cotton, winter wheat, biofuels and, of course, markets and prices and subsidies. ?   Arkansas Democrats have parlayed that connection into a broader cultural one with white rural voters. With that, they've dominated recent state elections rather handily, combining white rural votes with black votes to leave Republicans their mere niche.?Republican candidates have tended to come from the other side of the state and to be alien to the East Arkansas agribusiness culture. Generally speaking, fiscally strict Republicans have been feared as greater threats than Democrats to cut direct payments to farmers, also known as subsidies.?

You have exceptions, of course. Presidential races have tended to transcend this model.?East Arkansas farmers didn't trust the Democratic candidate for president in 2000, Al Gore from neighboring Tennessee. They were worried about his environmental concerns and what he might do about land and water use and chemical spraying.?They gave the good old boy from Texas a chance instead, and George W. Bush carried Arkansas and thus the presidency.

And that has not worked out well for much of anybody, farmers among them.?U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln hails from a Delta farm family. She owes her political rise in part to the money, political connections and cultural connections afforded by that background. ?

While Mark Pryor will get a free ride from the pitiable Republicans this year, Lincoln has been promised a Republican challenger in 2010. So it matters to her on a couple of levels what comes out of the farm bill on which she's been an integral negotiator as a conferee.?    

She says the rest of the country decries the size of subsidies for our region's farmers without understanding that the very modern nature of growing those crops — the equipment, procedures and volume required to make the economics work — requires large, capital-intensive farms. She says the rest of the country pushes disaster relief for farmers that won't provide as much help to our farmers, who have to control their environments with irrigation systems.?Her arguments aren't easy to make when prices are high and farmers are doing well while food prices soar, the federal deficit rises and general economic conditions worsen.? 

Everyone knew the size of the subsidies would have to be reduced in this farm bill. Those were political, economic and moral realities.?The old system by which farmers could double or triple their subsidies by organizing into separate entities has been repealed by the new farm bill. The old cap of $2.5 million in income to qualify for payments has been cut to $750,000.?   Lincoln is willing to accept these provisions, just as members of Congress from other farming areas have managed to accede to imperfections.?But the Bush administration still calls the bill “bloated” and says the president will veto it. Administration officials complain that the $750,000 would be doubled for a husband and wife who farmed, then the husband and wife could further avail themselves of non-farming family members as partners who conceivably could accept up to $500,000.?  

Bush has found a high-income person he doesn't want to help. That'd be the farmer or the farm-family member.?  

Lincoln counters this way: This farm bill is a tenuous political compromise and a massive policy document, mostly with food for the hungry and nutrition and conservation programs. The only constituent of the massive measure to take a reduction is the farmer's subsidy.

She says the world remains a hungry place. She says we need to be careful reducing our investment in growing food. She says other nations subsidize their farmers more and that other large global markets impose punitive tariffs on Arkansas-grown programs.?

Those are easy things to say as an Arkansas Democratic politician facing re-election in two years. They're harder points to make on a broader level. Big government payments to farmers getting high prices while the deficit looms and food prices soar — well, it's more complicated than that. The system is too embedded in the broad economy to change it too drastically.?  

And never forget that all politics is local.

Add a comment