A Plan or An Obit

Five hundred years ago this week, a German theologian nailed a sheet of 95 statements, or theses, to a church door in Saxony in hopes of starting a debate to reform the church he loved. But Martin Luther’s hammer didn’t spur debate; it sparked a wildfire that changed the world.

That’s the thing about reformers; once they get events rolling, events take over. Sometimes reform follows, other times revolution.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would be wise to take note of this difference because it is smack in the middle of what it calls a “broader on-going review of the Department based on the President’s… ‘Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch.’”

That effort, and a 2014 Farm Bill mandate for USDA to establish an “Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs,” will deliver a department, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue promises, that maximizes “customer satisfaction” and will be an “unapologetic advocate” for U.S. ag exports.

The plan hit a pothole Oct. 19 when Senate Ag Committee leaders asked Perdue not to swear in a newly-approved Under Secretary because—well, gosh, this is embarrassing—the office he was to fill under the USDA reform plan does not actually exist. Not yet, anyway.

Glitches like that should have been expected because few—in fact, no one that I could find—has seen an actual copy of USDA’s reform plan. To one Capitol Hill old-timer that means only one thing: “There really isn’t a plan.”

If that sounds crazy, welcome to our post-truth world. USDA is in the middle of what appears to be its biggest “reorganization” in history and there is no formal, public document listing any of the announced (or to-be-announced) reforms, their costs or benefits, and what it means to taxpayers and farmers both here and abroad.

So what do we know?

On May 11, just a couple of weeks after unpacking his socks in Washington, D.C., Perdue announced changes within USDA. The two most sweeping were the creation of the Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs (per the 2014 Farm Bill) and the elimination of the Under Secretary for Rural Development, an office that manages a $216 billion rural loan portfolio.

It’s not known if Perdue arrived at USDA with the reform plan or he if was handed it upon arrival. Nor is it known who wrote it—USDA staff or outsiders—and who paid for the work, taxpayers or special interests. (Capitol Hill rumors strongly assert it was non-USDA outsiders backed by a large farm lobbying group.)

The plan’s author is important because their view shaped the plan’s overall theme: what you see in American agriculture today is what you’ll see for decades to come—increasingly large, export-driven, biofuel-centered commodity production with ever fewer suppliers, farmers and ranchers competing for lower prices and more taxpayer subsidies.

What the author got wrong, however, is that American agriculture won’t be the same a generation or even 10 years from now. It will be different because it’s always different, never static. In the last generation alone, U.S. farmers have adopted GMOs, drones, and GPS. It’s anyone’s guess what the next generation will bring.

But it won’t be more of the same. Electric vehicles will dent—maybe even run over—the ethanol industry, climate change will continue to move production and markets to levels and places once unimaginable, and technology will continue to remove people from both farms and rural communities.

And yet, the unpublished, unseen USDA reform “plan” doesn’t account for any of these highly likely events. Instead it looks backward 40 years, not forward even 10.

As such, it’s more an obituary than a reform plan.

© 2017 ag comm

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One Comment on “A Plan or An Obit

  1. Alan,

    Over the past few weeks, I have been reading your column, not as individual columns, but as a body of work, and looking for prevailing themes. Your ‘big ag’ thoughts evoke consideration of underlying causes of the willingness of rural folks to buy into the mindset. I have an hypothesis. As always, the vote on my front porch is 1-0 that it is absolutely correct, but that may be subject to debate.

    Through the ongoing bombardment of the public with macroeconomic reasoning as the all too convenient justification for all strategies, we have fallen into the trap of only valuing things in terms of money value, i.e. land, commodities, wages, expertise, etc. When we play the game of money, rural folks don’t control the rules of that game, the folks on Wall Street and in Washington do. They get to make all the rules, so it is not surprising that we get short shrift in that arena.

    Conversely, when we consider the ‘real economy’ about which you and I were taught in Champaign, folks like us have more control over the rules of that game, because we are much closer to the natural resources and the products of them. As I drive my car this time of year, I can’t help but notice the mountains of corn on the ground at the elevators west of Eureka, in Yuton, at Elkhart on I-55, and every other town you drive past. But when we turn on the TV every morning, we hear nothing that is not expressed in terms of money. Have we missed out on the stock market run-up, or should we be speculating in Bitcoin? I think rural folks, like everyone else, are so blinded by the false narrative that we cannot see the pile of gold that lies at our feet. Until our collective mindset changes, and we employ what we have, rather than chase what we lack, I fear our fate will not improve.


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