What I've Learned Covering Ag
January 23, 2019
As I’ve covered the trade war with China and dove into research on Russia and agriculture for an upcoming interview, I’ve learned a lot, mostly about what I don’t know. Even though I grew up on a farm, in a farming and ranching community, I did not take any interest in the day-to-day operations, production or sales.
Recently I came across an article that captured my attention, focused as it was on issues facing farmers, ranchers and agricultural communities. While tariffs and the trade war have not yet produced positive results for these producers, the author of this article, Claire Kelloway, makes a strong argument that politicians, Democrats in particular, need to focus on the monopolization of sellers and buyers.
Kelloway points to J. D. Scholten in Iowa, who came surprisingly close to unseating Representative Steve King in Iowa. Scholten focused his town halls on the issues of increased prices on what farmers purchase in order to plant and how agribusinesses push down prices on products sold by producers. These issues, higher costs for production and lower profit margins, have led to the highest debt-to-income ratios for farmers in over three decades. Meanwhile, “Big Ag” has in recent years flaunted their unprecedented sales and profits. At the expense of the producers and the consumers on the other end.
All this information lead to an interesting conversation with my parents and grandmother over lunch this week. Without a solid understanding of farming operations, I turn to my family for discussion and decades of practical knowledge. And here, I welcome all farmers and ranchers to weigh in, to further my understanding of the issues you face.
Income inequality is an issue that will likely be an important topic in all elections for the forseeable future. While most of that discussion will focus on living wages, how will farmers and ranchers fare in this discussion? Producers who keep our nation fed, and help drive our local economy deserve our focus also.
Recognizing there is a significant level of distrust in both politicians and corporate America, how do farmers and ranchers consolidate their voice to make significant change? An attempt made by then-President Obama and secretary of Agriculture Vilsack to change rules in an effort to give farmers more power to stand up to monopolies was quickly met by opposition from powerful corporate lobbyists. Kelloway makes note that Vilsack himself is now the president and CEO for an agribusiness lobbying group.
Reading all of this made me wonder, what happened to organizations here such as our local Farmers’ Union? I understand how time-consuming meetings and organizing can be, as I tend to shy away from those myself. Yet so many people here find the time to give. Are there other locally organized groups here speaking solely for farmers and ranchers without corporate interference? If readers know of such organizations, please let me know. Deeper understanding of the issues will improve my reporting.
Competitive markets and fair compensation for labor and product are issues that low-income workers and producers that should shape political and civil discourse. The voices and experiences of workers and farmers should drive that discussion, not the lobbyists’ money or the politicians’ desire to retain their seats.
For those interested, the article referenced is How to Close the Democrats’ Rural Gap by Claire Kellowy in the January/February/March 2019 online edition of Washington Monthly.