Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and I share something in common. We both grew up on a farm — Johanns, on an Iowa dairy; me, a small cotton farm in Arkansas. And we both left the farm because we saw more opportunity elsewhere.
Obviously, Johanns has had the more spectacular career, earning a law degree and becoming mayor of Lincoln and then governor of Nebraska before being named to the top job at USDA. I've knocked around the journalism field, working at a couple of newspapers.
If there's one distinction I enjoy, it's that I think I've stayed closer to production agriculture. I know the secretary has friends who are farmers in Nebraska. You don't become governor of an agricultural state like Nebraska without them.
But I wonder how often he has listened to a farmer talk about losing a farm that's been in his family for generations or perched on the tailgate of a pickup and heard a litany of complaints about high input costs and low commodity prices or tried to allay the fears of a spouse who thought her husband might do something stupid in a moment of despair?
I say that because I read transcripts of most of the speeches the secretary makes, and I don't see much compassion for row-crop producers who are fighting droughts and high input costs to try to make most of their living from the land.
Take a speech that Johanns delivered to the National Association of State and County Office Employees National Convention in Cleveland Aug. 10. (NASCOE members man the USDA Farm Service Agency offices across the country.)
As he often does, Johanns referred to the 52 farm bill forums USDA conducted in 48 states last year. Johanns attended 21 and sat and listened patiently to hundreds of opinions from participants.
And, while a fair number said they like the current farm bill, Johanns, as he has before, brushed aside those comments and focused on calls for change, citing these areas: Young people can't get into farming, large producers get most of the payments and today's farm programs discriminate against specialty crops.
Yes, the deck appears to be stacked against young people in agriculture, but the same is true for newspapers or most large, commercial businesses. Large producers have an advantage in expanding their farms although most would rather not have to get bigger. And, farm programs don't do much for specialty producers because, until now, they didn't want government help.
We're not sure if the secretary, who leaves no doubt that he's a Bush administration team player, is simply spouting the White House's anti-farm program line or if he actually believes what he's saying.
Johanns told NASCOE members he anticipates a much longer list of interest groups will want to help write the next farm bill, which is probably true. Let's hope they and the secretary don't turn their backs on row crop producers who still form the backbone of American agriculture.