Joyce Whaley, a farmer’s wife in Marshall County, Miss., called me one afternoon in January with disturbing news impacting her, her husband, David, and dozens of other Mid-South farmers. They all had received notice that the crop bases they had earned on federally-owned lands were being terminated immediately. The rule effectively eliminated subsidies on the land.
Over the next two months, Joyce, other farmers, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cotton Council, Ducks Unlimited and our congressional leaders called, cajoled and wrote letters urging USDA and the Obama administration to overturn the rule. When the decision to rescind the rule was finally announced by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in March, it proved that the political system in America does still work.
For a grassroots effort to turn the ear of the Washington establishment, it takes four things — a squeaky wheel, a few good men and women, a strong message and a commitment by someone in charge to do the right thing.
The squeaky wheel of course was the unjust rule itself — removing subsidies for some farmers placed them at a competitive disadvantage to other farmers who do have subsidies, which simply was not the intent of the 2008 farm bill. The problem was that there were many other farm bills issues to contend with at the time. In fact, there were so many squeaking wheels in Washington that the Obama administration must have thought dozens of farmers were riding around the city on rusty bicycles. But somehow, the concerns of these farmers were heard through the noise.
Although there were numerous men and women who worked hard to rescind the rule, there was one who deserves special credit, Joyce Whaley. She organized farmers, spoke to congressmen and news media. In interviews, she kept her composure and stuck to the facts despite the fact that she and her husband stood to lose a lot if the rule stayed in place. When it was all over, and the rule was rescinded, she called farmers, congressmen and news media to congratulate them on a job well done. Heck, she even told me I had stars in my crown.
President Obama and Secretary Vilsack eventually learned of the far-reaching impacts of the rule. For example, if affected farmers were compelled to not farm federally-owned land, local county school systems stood to lose funding because 75 percent of the money paid in government leases is transferred back into the schools’ general fund.
In addition, the rule would have adversely impacted wildlife across America. Willie Oxner, who operates Dixie Farms, located in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, participates in the Refuge Cooperative Farming Program administered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His quarter-share lease agreement with USFWS requires that Oxner leave one-fourth of his crop unharvested for duck food.
In rice alone, this amounts to over 500,000 pounds of duck food annually, plus whatever is lost due to harvesting and spillage and from other crops. Removing that would adversely affect wildlife, according to the managers of the refuge.
Shortly after taking office, Obama issued a memorandum on transparency and open government instructing all members of his administration to operate under principles of openness, transparency and of engaging citizens with their government. The federal lands rule violated that principle because the rule was imposed in secret, not a word leaked out to farmers, legislators or farm organizations.
Fortunately for farmers, Obama and Vilsack were committed to following their own advice.