Sen. Pat Roberts, left, and former Congressman, Senator and Presidential candidate Bob Dole
HISTORICAL COMPARISON: Sen. Pat Roberts (left) and former congressman, senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole share a moment on the occasion of Dole being presented the Congressional Gold Medal last year.

Looking at farm bill struggles through lens of history

Farm bill struggles of today show some of the same stresses that were evident in 1968.

It’s been 50 years since Congress struggled to pass a farm bill in tremendously divided political climate of 1968 and wound up passing a one-year extension, pushing a comprehensive bill down the road. Then-Sen. Bob Dole explained that decision in a guest article in the Nov. 2, 1968, edition of Kansas Farmer.

He wrote that he was relieved that Congress would not "hurriedly write an ill-considered, stop-gap farm program," but concerned that the extension did nothing for "the disastrous conditions which have depressed farm prices to their lowest level in three decades," something that Dole contended had been brought about by "supply mismanagement."

I don’t think today’s politicians have named the issues that have once again brought farm commodity prices to a depressed state. It was just five or six years ago that farmers were celebrating some of the best prices of their lifetimes. But the slide from that pinnacle has been steep and costly. And just as was the case 50 years ago, there’s no easy answer in sight to ensure an improvement in market conditions.

As Congress enters lame duck territory at an impasse on a 2018 Farm Bill, in a political climate that is arguably the most divided since that landmark year of 1968, it is looking more and more likely that we may once again face what Congress chose 50 years ago — an extension of current legislation while solutions to new legislation can be found.

Sen. Pat Roberts, who is now chairman of the Senate Ag Committee, and his counterpart Mike Conaway, chairman of the House committee, say they are committed to working out a compromise farm bill in time to avoid an extension, but the longer the process drags on, the less hopeful many farm groups are becoming.

In 1968, Dole pointed to a 20-year period from 1947 to 1968 that had seen overall prosperity: a 266.8% increase in Gross National Product; a 94.1% increase in average weekly earnings for manufacturing workers; a 233.1% increase in rental income of landlords; a 541.5% increase in interest received by creditors; a 141.2% increase in business and professional income; and a 113.7% increase in farmers’ cost of production.

In the same 20 years, the total net income for farmers decreased 2.6%. Worse still, an increasing portion of the income farmers did realize came from government subsidies of farm income. In Kansas in 1967, average net income per farm was $5,259. Without farm payments, the net income would have dropped to only $2,978.

The answer, ultimately, Dole argued at the time, was finding a way to increase demand for American farm products around the world. This includes export markets such as the growing market in Japan where the U.S. was selling $1 billion in agricultural commodities annually — even 50 years ago.

Dole noted that one Kansas farmer fed about 40 people. That number today is 155. Dole called on Congress to provide the policy answers that would improve farm income and bargaining power.

"Your representatives in Congress, your senators and your president must all commit themselves to nothing less than full prosperity and opportunity in Rural America. Rural America must be saved — and the time is short," Dole wrote.

Fast forward 50 years. Yes, 50 years, half a century and 10 more farm bills later.

Farm programs have moved from mostly conservation subsidies and direct payments to crop insurance premium subsidies and cost-share conservation programs on working lands. The nutrition programs that Dole and fellow Sen. George McGovern championed have grown to comprise the lion’s share of the total USDA budget.

In 2017, U.S. agricultural exports totaled $140.5 billion, climbing nearly $10.9 billion from the previous year to the third-highest level on record. As it has done for more than 50 years, the U.S. agricultural sector once again posted an annual trade surplus, which reached $21.3 billion, up almost 30% from last year’s $16.6 billion.

China finished the fiscal year as the United States’ largest export customer, with shipments valued at $22 billion, followed closely by Canada at $20.4 billion. U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico reached $18.6 billion, a 6% gain from last year, while exports to Japan grew 12%, to $11.8 billion. Rounding out the top 10 markets were the European Union ($11.6 billion), South Korea ($6.9 billion), Hong Kong ($4 billion), Taiwan ($3.4 billion), Indonesia ($3 billion) and the Philippines ($2.6 billion).

That’s a healthy share of the markets of the world, but not enough to bring the prosperity and rural security that Dole dreamed could be accomplished 50 years ago.

What will it take to seal the elusive dream of consistent, permanent rural prosperity? I wish the potential of extending the current bill a year — on the order of what Congress did in 1968 — held the promise that the answer would be found.

There are hopeful signs in a tentative new agreement that renews NAFTA with terms that are as favorable as the old agreement in most areas and marginally better in others, with a brand-new name — the USMCA, United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — which the president likes a lot better. There’s been progress in South Korea as well, and some indications that Japan is willing to resume talks.

Today’s big question mark is China, the erstwhile powerhouse that is now the target of the most acrimonious of the tariff disagreements. Against that international backdrop, farm bill negotiators have to wade through the domestic acrimony and partisan bickering to resolve issues that have proven so far to be too tough to resolve. Good luck to the "Big Four." You clearly need it.

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