I’m coming into the final couple of weeks of service as President of American Farmland Trust before I return to the home farm in central Illinois. I was hoping, as were many others, that several years of hard work on the part of many people would be ratified in the form of a newly minted farm bill. Life (and Congress!) sure does have a way of making things challenging.
To say that we are in uncharted waters is probably an understatement even in the land of silly statements and spin that is Washington, D.C. But that’s exactly where we are. I flinch when I see all the finger pointing in the post-farm bill debate analysis. That will only lead to further divisiveness in a process that is already bitterly divided.
We are seeing the culmination of numerous changes that are making it difficult to do anything in this town. It’s a shame that the farm bill is the latest good deed caught in this dysfunction.
Our nation’s citizens are getting further removed from the farm. The result: Our highly productive food system that delivers food and so much more to so many people at a reasonable cost is taken for granted. That’s a problem. Likewise, science and, more importantly the way we talk about it, can confuse people and can lead them to be suspicious and overly cautious. That’s a problem. As for politics? We have an electoral system that is gerrymandered to weaken the influence of moderates. That is a problem. Congressional reforms have removed incentives for elected officials to work together. That is a problem. Need I go on?
We need to stop looking at solutions of the past to meet the problems of the future. Finger pointing won’t get us there. Neither will tinkering with an amendment here or there to appease a group of legislators or special interests that aren’t in a mind to be appeased. We’re in a different world, much of it derived from past actions that we considered at the time to be necessary and reasonable.
I don’t have all the answers, but I know that a big part of the way forward is to be much more critical in deciding what government really has to do to help agriculture meet the needs of our citizens. Starting from the perspective of what the public wants and needs, and determining whether or how policy can be crafted to help those of us in agriculture apply solutions is something that is badly needed.
We have a strong case to make with agriculture’s role in protecting the environment. American Farmland Trust estimates that even basic conservation measures save 295 million tons of soil every year and protect an estimated 1.5 to 3.3 million acres of wetlands. We can build political support around that. Figuring out how we can articulate better logic for how risk-management protects a stable food system is needed if we are ever going to get the support of a majority of Congress.
We have been given a wake up call. Our political problems are only going to get worse if we continue to base the future of farm policy on ideas set in place during the early half of the past century, if we cannot compromise on important issues, and if we continue trying to blame others when we fail to produce results.
Jon Scholl became the President of American Farmland Trust in July 2008, after serving as Counselor to the Administrator for Agricultural Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) since 2004. Prior to that, Scholl served the Illinois Farm Bureau for 25 years. He is a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Illinois.