Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Of Picking Corn and Candidates

In a ritual that pretty much goes unheralded anywhere else in the world, today is the unofficial start of the 2012 election season with the US’s first nomination[1] vote: the Iowa Caucus.
            To those uninitiated with the process, it goes something like this. Unlike an ordinary election, where one goes and casts one’s vote for a particular candidate, caucuses are like little town halls for each voting precinct. Before each vote is cast, a representative or advocate from each candidate will give a little spiel about the merits of their candidate and then each person casts their vote on a piece of paper (no chads or touch screens here…we’re Iowa!) and the results are then fed to the media. With 1,774 voting precincts holding their own individual caucus, and with 9 different candidates[2] chatting it up, it takes a while, and technically, the winner doesn’t even get the “official” electoral votes.
            So what’s the fuss? Why care about what goes on in what some would call a “fly-over” state’s nomination fight? And especially the GOP’s nomination fight, which, at last check, was a race to be the most anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-environment candidate ever?
            Well, isn’t that WHY it should matter? A lot of progressives like to dismiss the GOP as a bunch of bumbling religious freakazoids, but the truth of the matter is that these people VOTE. And when it comes to voting, they matter a lot. Farm Bill? EPA regulations? USDA rulings on antibiotics for livestock? Immigration reform for migrant workers? School lunches? In Iowa, the stakes couldn’t be higher for setting the agenda for the next presidential election in terms of environment, agriculture, economy, jobs and everything else in-between. To discount the importance of the Hawkeye State would be a serious political failure on anyone that cares about the agricultural or environmental future of the US.
            Granted, to most of those voting in the caucuses today, regulation, especially of the federal government kind, is anathema to their very set of values they are voting on today. But if any of you GOP’ers are game, hear me out. You know your vote matters and even though right now Iowa has it good with low unemployment (5.7% in Iowa vs. 8.6% nationally), high land prices (a 32% increase in TWELVE months and at one auction, land going for $20,000/acre) and high commodity prices, you farmers know if ANYTHING, things can change overnight. The history of farming is filled with tales of bubbles burst, measly crop prices and ravaged land. And even though you have it good now, it may not be good next month, much less next year
            Case in point? 1980’s. Due to the liberalization of agricultural trade with the Soviet Union in the 1970’s, commodity prices soared. Farmers suddenly made above the national average in terms of income for the first time since the 60s. Low interest rates and looser lending policies from the Federal Land Banks (established as a part of the New Deal) made land acquisition seem like a win-win situation.
            Well, the bubble popped. With the advent of high interest rates and tight money policies, farmers were left holding the bag. With a majority of farmers holding having accrued a huge amount of debt – to the price tag of $215 billion ($468.14 billion in 2011 dollars), most farmers were technically insolvent. Reagan, in his infinite wisdom, thought that the problem was market inefficiencies, and thus with his 1985 Farm Bill, he sought to both cut farm subsidies, price supports and trade barriers. Reagan’s logic was that lower prices would engender greater increased sales and thus the consumer and the farmer would win. Needless to say – it didn’t work. Small and mid-sized farmers, which make up more than 70% of the farms, could didn’t even have the economies of scale to benefit from such a policy. Politically, it was a failure, with several Republican farm constituencies going Democrat and a plunging approval rating amongst farmers.
            In the end, the Reagan buckled and instituted what he called “Payment-in-Kind” that paid farmers to place land out of production in exchange for excess government agricultural stock, which then could be then sold for additional payments. For the Regan administration, this seemed like a winner – it would be able to use “market logic” to drop farmer subsidies as well as reduce federal intervention in agricultural markets.
            That didn’t work either. Taxpayers were paying $12 billion a year to maintain the program. Because of selling government surplus only depressed commodities’ prices further, farmers were barely making ends meet. And the in the end, agribusiness and large farms (those selling over $100,000/year) received 67% of the subsidies.
            By the end of the crisis in 1987, when farmland values finally bottomed out, farms lost ¼ of their land values; millions of farms foreclosed and taxpayers were supporting farms that never needed the help to begin with.
            We are beginning to see the makings of the same bubble again. With farmers placing poor or conservation-marked land into rotation, farmland has now become the new gold rush. But do we ever learn from history? If anything, this bubble will pop – as all bubbles do, and once again, farmers and taxpayers will be left holding the bag. Currently, no Republican candidate has a solution for this eventuality.
            And there’s more. What about conservation policies? Well, they were a part of the same package of farm incentives set in the 1985 farm bill. Thanks to that conservation, you have improved soils, better hunting and water quality that make Iowa’s farmland some of the richest in the nation. Congress is considering cutting the Conservation Reserve Program as farmers decide not to renew their conservation contracts. Will this be around when the next bubble pops?
            Furthermore, conservation prevents erosion of the valuable topsoil that brings Iowa’s prosperity. Will the GOP defend your future?
            Yes, Iowa – this is your day to make a difference. Tomorrow will be just another day at the farm. Don’t waste your vote. You never know what tomorrow brings.

[1] Caucuses are usually held for both parties contingent upon the electoral circumstances. As Barack Obama is running for re-election (and is the party nominee), the Democratic Party will not be holding a caucus of much consequence (Obama's a shoo-in). In cases where both parties are in search of a candidate, for example the 2008 election (Bush had term limits, so both parties had to find new presidential candidates), both parties will hold primary nomination contests across the U.S.
[2] There are officially 15 candidates running for the Republican nomination (with 3 candidates who have withdrawn or suspended their campaigns), but nine candidates (not including the “none of the above” or “other” categories) will be in the running. One candidate that has explicitly made himself absent is Jon Huntsman, who is doing a double-or-nothing gamble on the next primary in New Hampshire.
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