The USDA has finally folded up its “2007 farm bill listening tour” tent. After testimony ended at the Nov. 4 meeting on the Springfield, Mo., fairgrounds, USDA Secretary Mike Johanns headed back to Washington, D.C., with plenty to ponder. Johanns and his staff will now comb through comments and correspondence collected during the tour and start shaping the next farm bill.

On the USDA trek across agricultural America, only Louisiana and Mississippi didn't host a tour stop. This was due to “obvious reasons,” said Johanns. “They've got a lot of things on their plate related to the hurricanes.”

In his introduction, Johanns — formerly the governor of Nebraska — s aid he grew up on a farm with two brothers. His father “had a notion on how to build character. He'd hand us a pitchfork and send us out to the hog house, chicken house or barn. We'd stand knee-deep and pitch away…Little did he know he was preparing (me) for a life in politics.”

While few Bootheel-area producers spoke at the southwest Missouri meeting, with some 300 in attendance, plenty of their fellow statesmen had opinions for Johanns. Besides farmers and ranchers, rural leaders, conservationists, bird watchers, hunters, and building contractors, all had a say. The topic with more play than any other: the need to continue rural development programs.

“(Conservation) provisions in the 2002 farm bill were landmark legislation,” said Fred Feldman, a central Missouri farmer. “We'd like to see them continue.

“The bill represented the single-most significant commitment of resources toward private land in the nation's history…It's making a difference. Private landowners in Missouri are benefiting from voluntary assistance including cost-share, land rental, incentive payments and technical assistance.

“The 2002 farm bill placed a strong emphasis on the conservation of working land. This has helped make sure the land remains healthy and productive.”

Pamela Wright, a beekeeper and board member of the Missouri Farmers Union, spoke on country of origin labeling (COOL). “Consumers need to know food is produced under (U.S.) regulations rather than lax regulations, or none at all. I especially want to talk about honey. Honey isn't on the list of products requiring COOL labeling. It should be.

“We want to sell American honey at a good enough price to stay in business…The main trouble is Chinese honey. The Chinese put a carcinogenic chemical in their hives to kill parasites. This chemical can migrate into the honey. People need to know when they're getting honey that allows (such chemicals during production).”

Howard Hardecke, a beef producer from Bolivar, Mo., and president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association, said “Within a 100-mile radius of Springfield, there are probably more cows than anywhere in the U.S.‥Many people in this room are part of that beef industry.

“I'd like to encourage you, Mr. Secretary, to keep an emphasis on opening up the export markets. You've been working hard with the Japanese and that's been a difficult situation. We want to encourage you to get that locked up…and work on other markets like Korea, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and China.

“Some 95 percent of the world's consumers are outside our borders. We desperately need to expand our markets.

“In southwest Missouri and across much of the state we've suffered drastically from drought this year. The most that the (majority) of us have been able to get are some low-interest loans.

“Most of the farmers I'm aware of try not to borrow a lot of money. We would like the new farm bill to have more assistance rather than just low-interest loans.”

Ozark County cattle rancher Julia Gatewood spoke on the need to expand wind power in the Midwest. “It seems there needs to be a marriage between the agriculture department and the electric utility sector.”

Gatewood suggested money should be included in the 2007 farm bill to help build transmission lines. If done, electricity supplied by wind-powered turbines could make a difference for Missouri consumers.

Steve Henderson, a West Plains-area farmer who has run for political office, was worried about the increasing “corporate control of agriculture…There are four major companies that run (the oil industry). The same story is happening in agriculture.

“The reason we're talking about farmers in the first place is because there's no competition in the marketplace…There are a handful of players in the market. Now, they've gotten into livestock.

“We need to allow for a truly free market to exist. Current free trade agreements aren't really free trade…We're actually becoming a net importer of food. That's a national security issue and shouldn't be happening. But this ‘free trade’ doesn't help the farmer in this country. It helps the big middlemen corporations that are running (commodities) in and out of this country.

“If we're really going to solve this problem, we must address the concentration of economic power in the agriculture sector. We need (politicians) who aren't just going to listen to lobbyists and not listen to those of us out here struggling to make a living. I hope to heck we'll take over Washington one of these days.”

Concerns about lead-infused mine tailings impacting the environment led Jill Henderson to the microphone. Henderson, a farmer from eastern Missouri, pointed to the “very delicate topography in south-central Missouri. It's very porous.

“My understanding is lead is a very toxic substance. We've spent countless taxpayer dollars trying to remove lead from homes, businesses and soils. So why on earth are we spreading mine tailings (containing lead) over agricultural land…where animals graze?

“I've heard the tailings contain lime — an expensive (agricultural input). Tailings are a much more affordable alternative to agricultural lime. But (the practice) is dangerous…I would ask you to ban the spreading of all mine tailings across agricultural land in Missouri and across the Unites States.”

With blue-jacketed, teenage Future Farmers of America (FFA) members scattered throughout the meeting, the inability of youngsters to break into farming was often raised. Stephanie Matthews, a Missouri FFA representative, pointed out the average age of a U.S. farmer is 56 and climbing.

“Unless we consider the challenges facing today's young people in getting into production agriculture, there will soon be fewer and fewer people in control of the American food supply.

“I grew up on a family farm…From where I stand, the leading challenge facing young producers is needed capital to start farming and managing the risk that comes with it.

“I come from a family of five children…When my dad retires not one of us can afford to farm no matter how much we desire to continue on the family farm. The high cost of land, machinery and livestock explains why there are so few people entering the agricultural profession today. (What's needed is) a USDA loan program to assist young farmers entering production agriculture.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com