fb - voice of agriculture
June 2001

Food Bounty Provides National Security


Bob Stallman
President
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

As rural America's political power base has shifted over the years to urban areas, farm program spending increasingly has become a misunderstood whipping boy. Critics want to know what makes farm families deserving of public financial support not afforded owners of mom-and-pop hardware stores or family-owned grocery stores.

The answer is that a family-based ownership structure is the only common thread shared by these aforementioned enterprises. Farming always has been an altogether different animal.

In spite of farmers' best efforts to manage natural and financial risk, they often see their bottom lines blasted by weather disasters, the crash-and-recover uncertainty of international economics and the whimsy of domestic regulatory mandates. Each can take a painful bite off the top of an already-slim profit margin.

Price Takers Have Limited Options

Unlike the hardware or grocery merchant, the bulk of America's farmers involved in the production of commodities cannot pass unexpected business expenses or losses along to consumers. Compounding farmers' overall inability to set prices is the recent trend toward consolidation and concentration among agribusiness companies that buy farm commodities, which further trims competition and opportunity in the marketplace.

Greater economic stability for agriculture is an important public policy goal. It is not an exaggeration to call our farm policy an issue of national security. America's farmers provide food security for this nation and much of the rest of the world. On average, America's consumers spend just 10 percent of their disposable personal incomes for food – lower than any other nation on the planet. That leaves the bulk of personal income available for purchasing the items that bring quality to American life. Food security forms the foundation of a culture's prosperity and social stability, and that's a priceless farm program dividend.

Agricultural Support Pays for More than Food Stability

Public support for the farm program is an investment in people who care for most of our nation's land and water resources. Keeping farmers on the land ensures the presence of dedicated and motivated caretakers. A farmer's livelihood and those of his future generations depend on the viability of a farm's land and water resources. It's a proven fact that farmers respond to incentive-based conservation programs funded by the agriculture budget.

The farm program also boosts American agriculture's role as primer of the nation's economic pump. Jobs are created. Significant economic multipliers can be applied to each dollar that sprouts on America's farmland. U.S. agriculture's $12-billion trade surplus makes our nation's dismal balance of trade less painful. Given current efforts to further liberalize world agricultural trade, the picture can become even brighter.

Parts of our nation are embroiled in yet another year of rolling blackouts, and all regions are seeing skyrocketing gasoline prices. Agriculture's renewable contributions – ethanol and other biofuels – to America's energy strategy already are paying dividends. If given appropriate public support, they can make an even bigger difference for our economy and the environment.

Make no mistake. The glue that holds this big picture together is the income support component of farm programs. Any squeeze on agricultural funding, however, would likely most affect research, market development and conservation programs. Members of Congress writing the next farm bill need the budget authority to assemble a full toolbox that complements farm income support in areas such as the nation's environmental, economic, energy and food security. They also need to hear from us now.