Bringing change to ag
Almost forgotten in Barack Obama's remarkable background and rise to power is the fact that he is a Midwesterner. He's not from Texas, Arkansas, or Georgia, but cold and windy Chicago. He worked with farmer legislators in Illinois and, according to Corn Grower activists there, has represented agriculture well in the U.S. Senate.
Obama's past support for ethanol and his plans to use green jobs to revive our economy bode well for agriculture. Agriculture isn't likely to be the first item on Obama's agenda in this time of crisis. Yet, it should be higher up on his to-do list than it was for preceding administrations.
That's because agriculture and related rural industries can play a big role in economic recovery. It can create opportunity in several ways.
Farming itself can be a source of more jobs. A great idea comes from Neil Hamilton, who heads the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Hamilton wants to see a New Farmer Corps that would establish a half million new farms in the U.S. in the next 10 years. This would use linking programs to match retiring landowners with young farmers.
The 2008 farm bill has some help already, such as competitive grants for beginners, down payment loans, and young farmer priority for FSA loans and conservation programs. It also offers incentives to owners of CRP land to rent or sell to beginners. Hamilton would also add tax breaks for landowners who rent to beginners.
This won't work in a vacuum. USDA has to quit subsidizing expansion of the very biggest farms. Obama has already cited a Government Accountability Office report that nearly $50 million in commodity payments have gone illegally to farmers with more than $2.5 million in income. That's an encouraging sign that his USDA may enforce or strengthen payment limits. A national authority on this issue is the Center for Rural Affairs (www.cfra.org).
All farmers would benefit from more competition. The Obama administration needs to more vigorously enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act and existing antitrust laws. One of the strongest advocates for this enforcement is the Organization for Competitive Markets (www.competitivemarkets.com).
Even more jobs and even more competition are possible if Obama's USDA promotes local food production and processing. This can also save energy used in shipping.
Global warming is another Obama priority. Agriculture is key to this, too. While a New Farmer Corps might help small farms, I don't expect Obama to abandon large-scale, commercial farming, either. And he shouldn't. For decades it has reduced our trade deficit. Now, America's millions of acres of crops will help reduce global warming.
Farms can store more carbon in and on the soil with more no-till or by interseeding cover crops. This should be a top goal of the Farm Bill's Conservation Stewardship Program.
USDA could also make biofuel production more efficient. We know corn-based ethanol yields more energy than it takes to grow corn and distill ethanol. Technology can boost it even higher.