Congress returns from August Recess this week, and, as we all knew would probably occur, suddenly other much more pressing business makes Farm Bill consideration by September 30 highly unlikely. Syria, Appropriations, immigration, the federal debt ceiling, etc., etc.; and the House has only nine working days to act this month. …Then seven…, …five…, …and then there will be none.
After two years of work for so many good folks, in both bodies, USDA, and all our diverse interest groups, an extension now appears to be our most hopeful outcome. At times like these, when I am in dire need of both perspective and wisdom, I try to get back to the farm.
I am very clear about why I do this. Being “home” is part of it, of course. Since my grandson is the seventh generation of our family to walk these hills on a western ridge of the Appalachian Mountains, it is certainly that. A “sit” on the front porch swing, watching the young foal and her mother grazing across the valley below works, and the hubris-filled and utterly worthless political rhetoric about who’s to blame and why, and who’s winning and losing as a result, falls away like autumn’s leaves. But more than this really affects me here.
Things are real on the farm—proximate. Decisions must be made, and acted upon, or the consequences are quite immediately clear. Decisions, or lack thereof, have immediate impact. Should we still try to get a third cutting? What green crop should follow corn this fall, and in what fields? Should we buy steers or cows, or wait ‘til spring? Should we cut those cherry logs, or wait one more year, for the price to recover?
Discussions such as these, on family farms like ours, mean utterly nothing in the broader scope of macro-ag commodity policy, of course. But they profoundly matter in a far deeper way for our Republic. These decisions, like others made around kitchen tables by the millions, all across America, are how our fellow citizens—on farms, in small towns and villages, and in our nation’s largest cities assume responsibility for their families’ future well-being, and that of the others around them. They then live with the consequences, very well aware that they are ultimately responsible. And this is why Congress has such a miserable favorability rating. If you farmed as they govern, a crop would never be planted, a hayfield cut, nor a fence mended. Our fellow citizens know this, of course, and they are utterly disgusted, as well they should be. Our political establishment has essentially abdicated responsibility for the decisions they should be taking, on our common behalf.
Interestingly, regarding failed Farm Bill dynamics, something else has been happening in my week at the farm. After I’ve been home for a while, word gets around, and neighbors stop over or call for a visit. That is when I get my deepest grounding in reality. On this trip, the farmers all ask the same question, in almost the same way: “Why in the hell can’t those guys pass a Farm Bill?”
And since our county is one of Ohio’s poorest, most followed that question with a comment about why those rich Congressmen are “trying to take Food Stamps away from folks we know, who truly need that help?” At first, this was quite surprising to me. While they clearly were following Farm Bill discussions, it’s quite amazing that in this hotbed of Tea Party rhetoric, these two questions were so often combined in my neighbors’ political consciousness.
However, as I have reflected upon this, when you farm so close to this much poverty, and your town’s churches all host food distribution and free meal programs, it’s very hard to objectify “the poor.” They are all your neighbors, and more of them are white than black. In fact, I am quite certain that if the SNAP program is significantly reduced, the one remaining service station qua small deli qua small grocery store remaining in our town will close. In our community, “we” are all of this! And so, back to their question. After I’ve kicked the dirt with my boots for a while, and looked around, I tell them I have no answers.
These folks have never read a study of the unparalleled growth in U.S. income and wealth inequality over the past thirty years; they just can’t understand why Congress can’t take care of farmers and the folks that need some help “getting by” these days. It is a pertinent question.
What I do know is that positive developments are occurring across the rural landscape which gives me far more hope for rural people than this Congress. I’ve decided to share some of them with you in the next few months. Not surprisingly, most of these are grounded in our states and the communities of which they are comprised, and most of these innovations will occur with or without a strong Congressional commitment to their success. Of course, that would be helpful, but rural bootstraps are the order of the day, moving forward. All across America, states and communities are recognizing and engaging this new reality, which will ultimately benefit us all.
I look forward to sharing these stories with you. When Congress begins caring more for my hometown, and the Ridge where we and our neighbors farm, I’ll be sure to return to those considerations.
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