This past winter, at the Pro Farmer Profit Briefing Seminars, I had the opportunity to visit with producers and pick their brain on their views on Washington. I used their comments at USDA’s annual Outlook Forum in February near Washington, D.C., to build my luncheon speech on a "View of Washington from outside the Capital Beltway."
"They’re always in campaign mode" was a frequent refrain as I met with farmer after farmer. They were clearly frustrated with what seem to be drive-by lawmakers who want to stay in Washington once they’re there. "All they seem interested in is getting re-elected once they get in," said one producer. Another said there sure seems to be a lot of special interest money floating around the halls of power in Washington.
One farmer said that perhaps some of the same people keep getting re-elected because the choices aren’t that good. "We need to find better candidates so it isn’t a choice between the lesser of two evils," he said.
In November, a lot of candidates ran on the platform of wanting to change the climate in Washington. That resonated with voters, but politicians who promise change can’t always—or don’t always—deliver. "They campaign on change," said one farmer from Iowa, "but once they’re in, they seem to forget. Either that or they find they can’t fight the way Washington works."
Sometimes even those who run on change can wear out their welcome. "They just seem to stay too long," said an Illinois grower.
I asked many farmers if they thought term limits were the answer. Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes. The general view was that two to four two-year terms in the House and one or two six-year terms in the Senate should be the limit.
Those backing term limits admitted they have their disadvantages, too. "They certainly don’t seem to mesh with the current structure in Washington, where seniority has its benefits in terms of leading committees and such," one Kansas farmer remarked.
Other farmers conceded that if term limits were put in place, they could end up preventing some of those who are doing a good job for their constituents from staying in Washington.
Several people I spoke with this winter gave high marks to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who opted not to run in 2012 so that he could focus on cutting the budget deficit and writing a new farm bill instead of having to campaign.
Worrisome regs. Perhaps the factor that came up most often was regulations. At the Top Producer Seminar this past January, I conducted a poll, asking, What do you think will affect your operation in the future? The overwhelming answer: regulations.
The comments from farmers in relation to regulations were some of the most vehement, and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has picked up on that.
Topping the list of regulatory concerns was the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Next to the Internal Revenue Service, it was the agency most frequently mentioned by farmers as likely to affect their farming operation in the next few years.
"They lack common sense," said one Indiana grower. "It’s like they’ve never been on a farm, with some of these regulations they come up with!"
Another asked, "Why can’t they just let farmers be farmers?"
Even Senate Ag Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has acknowledged this feeling that the EPA is out of touch. At the Outlook Forum, she remarked that "We might need to remind [EPA] that country roads can sometimes be a little dusty, and there’s not much we can do to change that."
Budget axe. Farmers know that budget cuts have to come. But they are wary of how the budget axe will be swung. "We have to live by a budget for our farming operation, so why can’t the government?" asked a South Dakota farmer. "We know cuts will have to be made, but they need to be equitable."
As the budget cutters start to sharpen their knives, many are eyeing the $5 billion paid out annually in direct payments—dollars that flow whether prices are up or down and no matter what a farmer grows. As one Arkansas rice farmer pointed out: "Direct payments have a different
impact for some sectors. Some years, they have been 75% or more of my bottom line."
Farmers’ wish list. So, what would farmers like to see? An improvement of the safety net, according to responses from farmers at the Top Producer Seminar. When asked, Will the current farm program provide an adequate safety net should prices plummet and bring about counter-cyclical payments again, 83% of the more than 200 farmers responding said no.
When asked where they’d prefer any reduction in direct payments to be shifted to, 55% said crop insurance programs. One Southern farmer reminded me, though, that crop insurance still doesn’t offer cotton or rice producers the options available to Midwestern corn and soybean farmers.
It’s obvious farmers understand the country’s current situation and the need to reduce the budget deficit. If farm programs are cut, farmers hope enhancements to crop insurance will fill the gap. While the government is at it, it can cut regulations, which is a change farmers seemingly would pay almost anything to get.