Wednesday, June 20, 2012

more risks


Last week we talked about calculated risks and the potential injuries farmers and ranchers face when executing those risks.

But talking about risk without mentioning reward kind of skews the issue. I skirted around it last week – saving time and money are part of the reward farmers and ranchers receive when their calculated risks pay off.

But there are other rewards, too. Most folks in this country work directly for employers. We don’t. We set our own course. We are the epitome of the sovereign citizen. No one tells us when or how to do our work. We do our own quality control. In many ways, we are the freest of the free. And that’s a reward that only comes from daring to take calculated risks.

So there’s a big paradox. To be the freest of the free you have to risk it all – or at least a great portion of it. And if your risk doesn’t work out, even if you’ve done your best to manage it, even if you've done everything right, you can find yourself among the ranks of the former farmers and ranchers.

Risk and reward go hand in hand.

A top-of-the-head definition of risk might be ‘the potential for unintended foreseeable and non-foreseeable consequences to occur during the course of a particular action or inaction.

A similar definition for reward – so far as farmers and ranchers go – might be ‘the realization of great freedom and independence which comes only from having successfully executed equally great risks.

Hard work, solid planning and perseverance usually allow farmers and ranchers to survive unanticipated negative outcomes or events. But not always. Nature doesn’t deal in our conception of fairness. Successful farmers and ranchers understand this. Perhaps it’s why my Grandpa said “endure the bad years and enjoy the good years.”

I’ve been building fence around a quarter-section that recently came out of CRP. The quarter is adjacent to two sections which are already fenced, so I’ve really only been fencing the south and west sides.

The other day I marked and drilled post holes along the south side and started tamping in posts. But near the east end of the fenceline I got lazy and about a dozen of the post holes were off line. Only by about six inches, but it’s a property boundary, so the fence line needs to be straight and precise.

I initially decided to dig out the sides of the post holes with the old “Armstrong” post hole digger, but the dry soil was a lot tougher to dig than I expected, so I only repaired one hole the old-fashioned way. It was a lot of work. I used the skid-steer and auger to refine the other errant post holes.

I had thirty or forty posts tamped in when quitin’ time rolled around, so I called it a day and headed for the house, leaving the one hand-dug and tamped post isolated, a few hundred yards away from the others, like a soldier standing guard.

Sometime after midnight the wind shifted around to the south, wafting the scent of our cow herd, now congregated on summer pasture, toward our herd bulls, isolated in a pasture four miles away. They were behind a stout four-wire fence, as were the cows. There were two other stout fences in between, as well as my partially-completed fencing project.

But a four-wire fence won’t hold a bull that wants to go visiting. None of the four fences seemed to slow them down a whit. In the morning they were with the cows, 11 days early. Not a major problem. But there will be some early calves next spring.

During their nightime journey south, the bulls paused along my growing fenceline and milled around long enough to fill several open post holes. And they found my isolated fence post irresistible for rubbing. After all the effort I expended setting that post, they casually snapped it off right at ground level.

Experiences like these tend to keep a person centered. There’s a whole big universe out there, and it’s not really concerned about your plans.

As Stephen Crane put it:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

We work with the bountiful tools nature provides. We also work with the roadblocks and setbacks she provides.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reptiles in the Panhandle?



Much of the tri-state region is known as “flyover country” to most Americans, more than 90 percent of whom hail from within 100-200 miles of the east and west coasts, the highly urbanized and suburbanized population centers of the nation.

Visitors to this region generally remark at how bare and stark the area seems, and often complain that there’s “nothing to do.” This is hardly surprising, for those who live along the coastlines live in a land of short horizons, buildings and forests, and constant swarms of activity.

There’s often a paradox involved when people talk about flyover country or look at the Great Plains as a sea of nothingness. For a great many of our urbanized and suburbanized coastal brethren are strongly drawn to the “green” movement, and fear that we humans tread far too heavily on nature. Yet they live in artificial enclaves where nature is largely represented by zoo exhibits.

But to see a breathtaking glimpse of nature’s intricate bounty, a visitor to our region need only drop his eyes from the magnificent horizon and look closely at the vista opening at his feet.

The native prairie ecosystem of our region is more equal in complexity to the most pristine rain forest. In fact, when you take seasonal changes into account, the prairie is often more complex and more varied. On a spring day, in the near distance from the tips of the toes to a mile, one can see scores of grass and forb species, wildflowers galore, hundreds of birds, and with careful observation, many species of mammal ranging in size from the tiny vole to the magnificent Bison. Insects of every shape, color and size clot every square meter of ground and buzz about the nearby air their thousands. Beneath the surface, plant and animal life is equally abundant and varied. But there’s one thing more. Reptiles and amphibians.
Josh Mead, UNL Herpetology Assistant, holds an adult male Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi) Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

A pair of UNL researchers visited a ranch in Kimball County Sunday and came away with a good deal of data on, and more than a few specimens of, the southwest Panhandle’s reptile population. Over the course of six hours, they covered more than three square miles and collected lizards, skinks and snakes, as well as data on sightings, weather conditions and environmental topography and condition.
Josh Mead, UNL Herpetology Assistant, and Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, collect a specimen Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

Dennis Ferraro, an Extension Educator and University of Nebraska’s Herpetologist, who led the excursion, said, “My main goal in my career and in life is the conservation of amphibians, reptiles and turtles in North America.” Ferraro maintains the university's live animal lab of native Herpetofauna – that’s reptiles and amphibians – for research and educational purposes.
Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, collects a skink Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

As UNL’s herpetologist, Ferraro sometimes gets unusual calls. “The State Patrol called me last year to the scene of a meth-lab they had busted back east. The criminals had hidden their stash of drugs in a fish aquarium and thrown a half-dozen rattlesnakes in the tank on top of the drugs. Of course they didn’t care for the snakes and they were half-dead from malnutrition, but I was able to collect them and the police got the drugs.
Josh Mead, UNL Herpetology Assistant, holds an adult skink Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

Accompanying Ferraro was senior Fish and Wildlife studies major and UNL herpetology assistant Josh Mead from Kearney, Neb. “I love this stuff,” he said, “absolutely love it.”
Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, shows of an earless lizard Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

The main goal of the pair in Kimball County was to collect data on, and specimens of, male and female Short-horned Lizards (Phrynosoma hernandesi), commonly known as “horny toads” or “horned toads.” The Short-Horned lizard is a reptile, of course, and not a toad, which is an amphibian. The lizards are ubiquitous across our tri-state region, though not often seen due to their excellent camouflage.
A female Prairie Rattlesnake(Crotalus viridus), held safely and comfortably by snake tongs by a UNL herpetologist Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

The Short-horned Lizard  features a broad, flat body typically about 10 centimeters (cm) in length as adults. Newborns and young have the same body shape but are quite small, from 2 cm shortly after birth to nearly 4 cm at first hibernation. They have short, pointed spines at the back of the head, with spiny scales along the back and sides. They are quite colorful with patterns of black, brown, green, gray and white, but their coloration blends so well with their environment they are hard to see when they are still. Coloration and markings often vary considerably from location to location.
Josh Mead, UNL Herpetology Assistant, transcribes data while Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, prepares to tag and a female Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridus) Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

They are viviparous, non-placentropic reptiles, which means that the female retains the eggs inside her body until fully developed, when they hatch and emerge as live young. Most reptiles lay eggs in nests. Viviparous reptiles, said Ferraro, are thought to have adapted the internal carriage of eggs due to sharp day-night temperature changes across the region. In our area, externally nested eggs might not survive. Though reptiles are exothermic, or cold-blooded, sun basking and normal activity make the inside of the lizard’s body a more consistent and reliable place for the eggs to develop.
Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, inserts a tracking tag under the skin of a female Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridus) Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

In addition to collecting Short-horned Lizards, the pair of researchers also collected a number of skinks, an earless lizard, and several snakes.
Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, uses a handheld reader to check the status of a newly inserted tracking tag in a female Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridus) Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

“We’ve had a female Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) in our collection,” said Ferraro, “since 2002. Unfortunately, she developed a tumor on her head and though we removed it, the carcinoma was malignant and is growing back, She’s still eating, but I’m afraid we’ll lose her soon, so we’d really like to find a replacement.”

Ferraro and Mead had collected a male Prairie Rattlesnake the night before near Benkelman, Neb. Ferraro said he travels about 50,000 miles each year, crisscrossing the state in search of data and specimens.

In the first location they chose to search for rattlesnakes, they found and adult Prairie Rattlesnake under the first piece of debris they turned over. Quickly securing the snake with snake tongs, the pair prepared to examine, tag, and measure the animal.

The operation is quite intricate, and begins by carefully placing the head and front half of the snake inside a narrow, clear plastic tube. In this fashion the snake is both protected and it’s dangerous head is contained.

With Mead’s assistance, Ferraro quickly examined the snake and determined that it was a female. The initial determination is made by counting the number of ventral scales between the vent, or cloaca, and the base of the rattle. Twenty-four or more indicate a male, 22 or less indicate a female. This snake had 23, so Ferraro carefully probed the cloaca and verified the snake was indeed female. “She’s probably gravid (pregnant), too,” he said with a big smile on his face.

Ferraro then inserted a tiny tracking chip just under the skin of the snake along its side. This chip can be read by a handheld device to verify the snake’s identity. In this case, the snakes new name is 985121012679829.

Prairie Rattlesnakes are viviparous as well, and with any luck, the UNL Herpetarium will soon be home to a growing population from Kimball County.


Josh Mead, UNL Herpetology Assistant, plays with a friendly bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer) Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

Risk taking


Production agriculture is an inherently risky business. We hear that all the time. Generally, however, when people are talking about risk in agriculture, they are talking about monetary risk – the gambles we all take hoping to eke out a living in farming and ranching. We plant crops knowing that weather, insects and weeds represent a risk to producing a harvest and that market swings are a risk to realizing a profit. We raise cattle knowing that weather or disease can shatter the profitability in a calf crop and that a combination of weather and feed prices can quickly drive us to the point of heavily culling or even liquidating our cow herds.

There are other risks in production agriculture though. Risks to life and limb. Depending on which survey you read, farming and ranching almost always show up in the top 10 of dangerous professions. They often make the top five, and in a particularly accident-prone year can claim the top spot.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but the short answer is that farmers and ranchers often work alone, with potentially dangerous equipment and livestock, and we work in rural settings often miles from help, and even farther from emergency medical help. Most of us have a friend or neighbor or two (and sometimes more) who went out to work one day and were found dead from accident only after they failed to show up on time for supper. It’s a chilling possibility that rattles around in the back of our minds perhaps more often than we like to admit.

The biggest contributing factor is that our profit margins are often razor-thin. It costs a lot of money to produce crops, and the value of our harvest is often only a tiny fraction higher than our cost of production. In this environment the producer who stays in business is most often the one who keeps production costs low. In doing so, we often take calculated risks with the idea of saving money and time (which is often just another way of saying money).

If we’re thorough in our calculations, and weigh each factor correctly, and if bad luck doesn’t crop up, we’re generally successful in executing our calculated risk.

But just as our profit margins are tight, so to are our safety margins. Powerful equipment can crush, shred or electrocute. Livestock can be unpredictable, and in most cases our animals are much larger and more powerful than we are.

Monday I took two calculated risks which were slightly more dangerous than the normal, everyday risks I take. I fixed a windmill and I cut a neighbor’s bull out of my cows and drove him home.

The windmill fix was simple, replacing a worn connector in the pump rod. But to change out that 30-cent part, I had to climb the windmill and do the job about 25 feet above the ground. I wear a safety harness on most windmill jobs, but this particular windmill is constructed of oilfield pipe, and none of my carabiners are large enough to work. So I decided to forego the harness.
A 30-cent part was all it took to fix this windmill Monday on the EJE Ranch. A 30-cent part and a calculated risk.

I was very careful. I wore good boots with non-slip soles. I planned ahead, took my time, made sure of my hand- and foot-holds, moved slowly and deliberately, and didn’t overextend my reach. The job took more time than I wanted to spend, but not more time than I was willing to spend. Everything went fine, and the well is now pumping gangbusters.

But the risk was there. A fall would have caused painful injury at best, and would have been fatal at worst. A less risky way would have been to have another person with me to call for help if needed and to have spent the money for some new, large-diameter carabiners. That’s what I would recommend to anyone asking my advice on a similar project. I’d never advise anyone to take the risks I took. That’s a good illustration of the paradox we ag producers sometimes find ourselves dealing with. We know how to mitigate risk, and advise others to do so, but we sometimes take risky shortcuts. They usually work out okay. But sometimes they don’t.

I moved the bull by myself, on a four-wheeler. The bull was fairly aggressive, and showed me plenty of signs that he was open to the idea of taking me on. I was able to bluff him successfully with a combination of my own aggressive behavior and the noise from the four-wheeler.

In this instance I didn’t make a plan. I found the bull in with the herd while routinely checking cows. I decided I’d handle the problem immediately rather than to get help or switch to a more substantial vehicle. I knew what the dangers were, and I know people who’ve been badly injured attempting the same job. I took a calculated risk, but I made that decision on the spur of the moment. I chose to risk injury or death to save time, and to a certain extent, to prevent introduction of the bull’s unknown genetics into next spring’s calving mix.

Everything worked out okay, but there were a few nervous moments. Again, I’d never recommend that anyone work a bull alone on  a four-wheeler. It’s simply too risky, too dangerous. Yet occasionally, rarely, I’ll take the chance myself.

We all take calculated risks in this business. The possibility that the risk will turn around and bite us hard is always there. We work in a dangerous profession. We have to do the best we can to mitigate risks while knowing that we simply can’t do everything possible to mitigate every risk.

It’s a good topic to think about

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Perspective


If you’ve read this blog for more than a few years you’ve probably come across my all-time favorite movie line before.

In Lonesome Dove, cattleman and former Texas Ranger Agustus McCrae has gangrene in his leg, “…from them arra’s them Indians shot in ‘im.” The town drunk and doctor (same man, of course) has already amputated one of Gus’s legs and wants to amputate the other to save his life.

Gus’s lifelong friend Woodrow Call tries to talk him into accepting the amputation to save his life.

“It ain’t dyin’ I’m talkin’ about,” said Gus, “It’s livin’!”

I’ve also noted on these pages that those of us in production agriculture live a little closer to nature than the rest of our fellows in America. I like to think of it as living at the intersection of reality and fantasy. We exist at the meeting place of nature’s reality and the fantasy world we modern folks inhabit.

Our fantasy world is a wonderful place. We built it, and we share it with an amazingly diverse population. It’s home. So far as we know, none other of nature’s manifold creatures have ever built anything like it.

I visit nature every day, but I don’t live there. I live in our shared home. I come to nature with pockets stuffed to overflowing with home-built conveniences, driving a modern pickup, with light and power and factory-made tools at my beck and call. Those things make me feel strong and smart and nearly invincible.

Nature visits me anytime she wants to. Sometimes she bears priceless gifts, like colorful sunrises and starry skies and new baby calves. Sometimes the gifts she bears are painful to receive, like hailstorms and drought and dead heifers. There’s no difference in nature’s mind (if I may be so bold); it’s all the same to her.

We all, city folk and country folk alike, get reminded of this from time to time.

Nature visited last night and ripped a friend away, away from his mortal existence, away from the warm embrace of those who loved him, away from our shared home. It’s springtime and we’re surrounded by new life. Nature’s new life. But she gives and takes as she chooses. She always has. She always will.

At a time like this, it’s easy to say that nature is indifferent, or cruel, or uncaring. But those words don’t apply to nature.

As my heart was breaking and as I struggled to hold firm in the face of disaster, I got a big assist from an unexpected source.

Ricki came to our ranch again last week, the guest of a niece. She’s a pretty little girl, with hazel eyes and a heart-shaped face and a scattering of freckles across her nose. She’s just now crossing the divide between tomboy coltishness and young womanhood, though she probably hasn’t realized that fact just yet.

Ricki lives life at full speed. She’s always in motion; ready to fill every momentary silence with a question, an observation, or grand, unified statement. Some grownups, averse to new experience or perhaps simply filled a bit too tightly with grownupness, opine that Ricki is too loud, too talkative, too restless, and too busy to suit their notion of how a 12 year-old should behave.

I find Ricki’s traits not only endearing, but promising. Ricki doesn’t wait for life to happen, she grabs life by the heart and causes it to happen.

As she and I and her friend (my niece) were checking cows this morning, looking for a heifer with a new calf, Ricki spotted the pair only a moment later than I, a fact she chose to keep to herself. My plan was to let the girls search and search in futility, then point out the clues they’d overlooked, clues a keen observer could use to locate the pair.
Ricki and Gracie in the back of the Gator with a new cow-calf pair in the background on the EJE Ranch Sunday.

But Ricki, already a keen observer, spoiled that grownup plan, and in doing so, brought me down to size with a big grin on my face.

As we motored toward the new pair, we passed the long-bleached bones of a cow that died years before Ricki was born. She looked at the bones, then looked over at the cow and new calf, then looked at me and flashed a brilliant smile. “Circle of life,” she said.

Later, as they loaded up to head home, Ricki took one last look around, reached out, and touched my arm lightly. “I wish I could stay here forever,” she said.

She can't, of course, and she knows it.

But Ricki, you will always be a welcome and honored guest on our ranch.

And Drew, you made our shared world a better place, man. I miss you.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Farm Bill 101


Thomas Sowell, the brilliant economist presently working at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, notes that perhaps the most pervasive economic misunderstanding is the “zero-sum fallacy.”

This fallacy assumes that in any transaction between two parties, one party gains while the other party loses. In other words, the net value of traded items is permanent and never changing. If this assumption were true, and one party got a good deal, the other party would have to get a bad deal.

But economic zero-sum is a fallacy because it’s simply not true. Each party gains from the transaction, else the transaction would never occur (unless half the world’s population were complete idiots, and even then, the phenomenon would be self limiting – the idiots would eventually lose everything and die of starvation).
But values are not fixed and permanent, nor are they measured only in absolute monetary terms. In the real world, each party gains in every two-party transaction, so long as the terms of the transaction are mutually agreeable. Let’s look at a simple agricultural transaction.

I raise beef cattle but no corn, and you raise corn but no beef cattle. I want to purchase corn to feed my calves, while you want to purchase beef to fill your freezer. We approach each other and propose a trade. I will give you a certain amount of cash for your corn, while you give me a certain amount of cash for my beef. We dicker a bit on price. I would of course like to pay the lowest possible amount for your corn, and you would like to pay the lowest possible amount for my beef. Each of us would prefer to pay the other nothing, but we would never be able to agree on terms, because neither of us would gain from the transaction.

Eventually we do agree on terms. We might even dispense with the cash aspect altogether, and trade commodity for commodity. We probably do not do this, however, for in the 21st century, money can be easily exchanged for all other goods we might be interested in. I can't, for instance, take a calf to the local market and exchange it for $700 of groceries. Well, perhaps I could, but I'd surely spend days or even weeks negotiating the trade. Turning calves into money gives me flexibility and saves me time. The same is true for my corn farmer colleague. Money is an extremely useful trading tool, which is why it was invented.
At any rate, the corn farmer and I are each satisfied with the trade, having given up what we could afford in exchange for something we needed but didn’t have.

That’s the way an absolutely free market works. But just as ideal gas laws don’t really exist in nature, neither do absolute free markets exist in free societies. An entity vested with the power to impose an advantageous level of trading fairness must exist, lest the balance of economic power swing to a minority and the sovereign members of society become no more than the property of the wealthy -- the economic "Laird." But emplacing a controlling entity, which we call government, comes at a cost. The laws of thermodynamics rule in nature as well as in human society. There is no free lunch.

When government becomes involved, three parties, rather than two, must agree on terms. This means that fewer terms will be acceptable to all three parties, fewer transactions will occur, and both of the non-government parties will find themselves in a less advantageous position than before. Neither will be able to gain in total the advantage they would have enjoyed in a two-party trade. Still, there is some advantage to each party when government "regularizes" commerce and ensures a reasonably level playing field. Up to a point.

Unfortunately, even the governments of free societies grow in power and authority over time, eventually hindering more than helping. An additional factor is that the number of parties involved in transactions grow as more parties join the transaction. Layers of bureaucracy are added. Groups band together to lobby government for specific advantage. Is our society in such a situation vis-à-vis the government now? We may in fact be, and the farm bill provides a good illustration.

If you read, watch or listen to major media stories about the farm bill, the predominant narrative is about spending federal dollars to prop up farmers. Once they’ve heard the reports, the question that the 98-plus percent of Americans who are not farmers or ranchers ask themselves is this: “Why are we giving money – essentially welfare – to people who own lots of land, nice homes in the country and incredibly expensive equipment and support structures?”

It’s a very good and astute question, and like most substantive questions, it’s one that the major media doesn’t answer objectively or completely. It’s also a question that many consumers, those who have enough to eat and are unconcerned (thus far) about their tax bill, don’t really worry or even care about.  Still, the question is one that farmers and ranchers should be prepared to thoroughly and objectively answer when a non-farmer/rancher asks it. So let’s look at the farm bill. What is it, why is it part of the budget, and why is it necessary?

The farm bill is an omnibus bill – a single piece of legislation covering a wide variety of  food and agricultural programs. These programs are administered and implemented by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Renewed approximately every five years, the multi-year, broad nature of the farm bill gives both agricultural producers and congress the ability to plan for and implement ag policy and activity in the longer term rather than annually through the budgeting process. In theory, this allows a comprehensive approach for policy makers and stability for ag producers.

Although the farm bill is omnibus legislation and sets the USDA budget for five years, these laws are often modified by the Congress during the life of the legislation. Congress can also approve extensions, in whole or in part, of the bill. Sometimes this happens when negotiations for a new farm bill are held up in congress by conflicting interest groups or when the congress cannot reach agreement with the President. The 2008 farm bill, which when it became law was titled “The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008,” for instance, was actually due in 2007, but was held up by legislative and executive roadblocks.

The 2012 farm bill is already having it’s own share of legislative teething troubles. After being unable to pass a national budget (required annually by law) for more than three years, Congress turned the chore over to a bipartisan deficit-reduction supercommittee in 2011. The supercommittee failed, grid-locked along party lines. As it turns out, their failure was probably a good thing, because they met in secret, and the budget process is supposed to be done in the open. The supercommittee even tried to shoehorn the next farm bill into the mix during their behind-closed-doors negotiations. The farm bill and other budget legislation may have ended up going to the Supreme Court just as the secretly written “Obamacare” legislation has.

The federal farm bill had it’s beginnings in the “Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916.” Congress introduced additional ag policy legislation and spending during the depression, and passed six additional agricultural acts between 1938 and 1971. The first true omnibus farm bill was the “Food and Agricultural Act of 1965.” Through 2008 there have been 10 such bills. The next farm bill is scheduled to be enacted this year.

In broadest terms, the farm bill is intended to be a national food security measure. The agricultural policies it sets forth are designed to ensure that U.S. consumers have ready access to the most abundant, safest, and most affordable food supply in the world. Since the country does in fact have the best food supply in the world, the farm bill has contributed significantly, though not without controversy.

As with most federal programs, the farm bill has grown significantly over the years in both policy and spending, and these increases have often been hotly debated. Many question the overall effectiveness of farm support programs and their cost. Other arguments question whether farm support continues to be necessary for either agricultural producers or food security. Many permanent fixtures of the farm bill are decades old features and no longer necessarily support modern food production, U.S. economic plans, common global trading rules, or federal regulatory and budgetary policies. Although there are many opponents of the farm bill, there are just as many proponents.

In recent years, the farm bill has been expanded to include, in addition to farm support systems, conservation, nutrition, bioenergy and other programs. The 2008 farm bill process saw a very large expansion in the number and type of extra-legislative proposals coming from state organizations, national farm groups, commodity associations, conservation, recreational and rural development organizations, faith-based groups, and many other nontraditional interest groups.

As enacted, the 2008 farm bill includes 15 titles encompassing commodity price and income supports (including crop insurance), farm credit, trade, agricultural conservation, research, rural development, energy, and foreign and domestic food assistance programs, to name but a few.

Though broad in scope and expensive, the Farm Bill makes up only a fraction of federal spending, totaling about $128.4 billion in 2011, or about 3.5 percent of total federal spending for the year, which came in at more than  $3.6 trillion. For comparison, the federal government spent $793 billion (22 percent) on pensions, $882 billion (24 percent) on health care, $130 billion (4 percent) on education,  $482 billion (13 percent) on welfare, and $903 billion (25 percent) on defense.

The media narrative emphasizes welfare payments to rich farmers who don’t need or deserve federal cash, but the farm bill is much more complex than that. Not that there isn’t some truth to those assertions – some wealthy land owners do needlessly benefit from farm subsidy payments. According to one database, 5,220 land owners living in cities with populations larger than 100,000 received $394 million in subsidy payments this year. Some of these people were undoubtedly actively engaged in farming and spent the money to produce food, though one can argue that those wealthy enough to live in big cities while at the same time owning farms and ranches in the country probably don’t need federal cash to keep their ag operations afloat. Many others are land speculators, who receive a subsidy bonus when they purchase land already enrolled in one or more farm programs.

In addition, between 1995 and 2009, 23 members of Congress received $5.8 million in subsidy payments.

The vast majority of farmers, however, have come to rely on the annual payments to keep their food growing operations in business. This isn’t necessarily because they demand federal cash or because they enjoy filling out stacks of USDA paperwork. Most farmers would probably prefer to be free agents in a free market. But after nearly a century of ag policy designed to keep U.S. food supplies inexpensive and abundant, there is simply no quick-fix scheme – or even any proposal – to significantly modify government influence and return food production and consumption to a two party transaction.

Keep in mind that while $394 million probably shouldn’t have been paid to undeserving parties, it represents only three percent of farm income stabilization payments authorized by the farm bill in for 2011. The other 97 percent not only kept farmers producing an incredible array of safe and nutritious food, it also helped keep food costs down for consumers.

Speaking of costs, the media rarely if ever reports completely on how the money allocated through the farm bill is actually spent. Of the $128.4 billion spent in 2011, 81 percent, or $104.1 billion, went to food assistance programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps), WIC (Women and Infant Children), school meal programs, and other programs that provide food to needy people for free or at reduced prices.

There is a good and strong argument to be made that food assistance programs are necessary and beneficial to our society, particularly when the nation’s farmers provide such abundant and inexpensive food. Among all welfare programs, food assistance provides the by far the most help at the least cost – the most “bang for the buck.” Nevertheless, one has to wonder why food assistance spending is part of the farm bill, which was designed to produce food rather than succor the needy, and why such spending is not adequately addressed in the farm bill spending narrative.

Of the remaining 19 percent of 2011 farm bill spending, $11.8 billion (just over nine percent) went to farm income stabilization programs including direct and countercyclical payments (farm subsidies) and the federal crop insurance program. $7.2 billion went to conservation, and $5.4 billion went to agricultural research and services (including the incomes of USDA employees).

The federal dollars that go to conservation and research are monies well spent, or as well-spent as any government can manage. They not only help maintain a healthy environment, they increase crop yields and reduce the quantity of fertilizer and pesticides used to grow food.

And as we’ve established, most of the direct farm subsidy and crop insurance payments are necessary, at least at the present time, to maintain food security and to keep food prices as low as possible for consumers.

From a taxpayer standpoint, it would be nice to sharply reduce farm bill expenditures, and over time this is theoretically possible. But slashing ag programs is a two-edged sword. In this country, only 1-2 percent of the population are farmers and ranchers, and they feed the entire population, including themselves. Were they to be driven out of business by overzealous and badly implemented spending cuts, U.S. food security would disappear, food prices would skyrocket, and famine would rear its ugly head for the first time in our nation’s history. These are things to keep in mind as legislative preparations for the 2012 farm bill are reported over the next year or so.

Friday, June 1, 2012

challenges and wildflowers

As you may recall from previous posts, I've had a series of health challenges over the past few years. Mostly normal getting-older stuff; much of it exacerbated by lifestyle choices over the years. Too fat, poor diet choices, etc.

At Christmastime I had a traumatic concussion and suffered from what I thought was post-concussion syndrome for a few months. While there was probably some PCS going on, there was a slightly more serious problem underlying that.

Sometime during the last six months or so I developed b-cell lymphoma. I'm undergoing treatment and monitoring and have been able to just keep up with most of my daily activities.

But the illness and its cure have left me quite fatigued and with little energy reserve.

Therefore, unfortunately, I'll be unable to offer a formal wildflower event on the ranch this year.

I may be able to offer individual tours on a person-by-person basis. Contact me if you're interested.

shaunevertson@charter.net