FAIR Act Raises Stakes for America's Food ProducersBy C. David Kelly
Don Villwock is not a betting man, but he gambles every day of the year. The high stakes he faces make most of the high rollers in Las Vegas look like penny-ante hustlers.
A veteran of rolling the dice, Villwock occasionally feels the beads of sweat form on his forehead as he puts his money on the table. Months pass before he learns whether he will have any winnings to cash in.
Farming is Villwock's game. And the stakes have been raised considerably with the passage of the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act. While the new farm bill provides freedom farmers haven't enjoyed in the past, it also requires food producers to approach their business in a different way.
Bureaucrats no longer mandate what farmers can plant and how much they can harvest. Fertile acreage no longer has to remain idle just to satisfy a government set-aside.
The FAIR Act, also called Freedom to Farm, gives food producers the liberty to respond to what the market dictates. And farmers like Villwock believe the new independence gives their business better odds of success. "It makes us all think," said Villwock, who produces popcorn, field corn, wheat and soybeans on 2,000 acres in southwestern Indiana. "It brings management back into agriculture. We've been asking to be rewarded for our management abilities for some time."
While the new freedom has leveled the playing field for farmers like Villwock, agriculture still poses quite a gamble. Mother Nature still has a way of reminding who holds most of the cards. Villwock already has been dealt his first setback under the new farm bill. With corn prices going through the roof, and grain shortages reaching alarming levels, the market dictated for Villwock to plant more corn. He figured corn would produce the best economic return.
His plans would have worked to perfection except for one minor setback - day after day of torrential rainfall hit the Midwest in early May, leaving about one third of his acreage under water. All Villwock could do was stand by and wait for the flood to recede. He gambled, and this time, lost. But he is already anticipating his next hand. Thanks to the flexibility provided by the new farm bill, soybeans will probably fill those same fields this summer.
The flooded fields provided yet another reminder that freedom carries a price. Food producers no longer have the ability to turn to government for relief from such natural disasters. They have the option of purchasing catastrophic crop insurance, or signing a waiver stating they will not turn to the federal government for relief in the event of such losses.
Like all good business managers, Villwock understands the need to protect himself from such rainy days. He purchased a catastrophic policy. Risking his livelihood to the whims of Mother Nature is one gamble he isn't willing to take.
Villwock's game is addictive, but it's not the type of compulsion that will draw any sympathy from Gamblers Anonymous. Villwock is a farmer. And, regardless of the odds each year, he wouldn't walk away from the table for anything.
C. David Kelly is assistant director of news services for the American Farm Bureau Federation.