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The fate of farmers Part I
Dr. Victor Martin

First the drought monitor remains basically unchanged except that abnormally dry conditions have crept northeast into Pawnee, Stafford, and southern Barton Counties. The rain since last Tuesday should help. Decent progress, until the rains, was made planting wheat on clear ground. Delayed harvest of summer row crops, is slowing wheat after corn, soybeans, and milo. Fortunately, it is only Oct. 6 so the planting window is still there for optimal production. The possible hiccup is adequate warmth to drydown summer row crops and rainfall. It is still a better situation than many faced last year. Now onto today’s topic.

Everyone’s familiar with the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. What many don’t know is that the “Great Depression” started in agriculture much earlier. There isn’t space here to go into detail, however, some of the same factors in play today were in play back then. After the election of FDR in 1932, and as the crisis deepened, Washington took a number of steps many are familiar with (the WPA, TVA, etc.) but they also dealt with agricultural challenges. Part of it was establishing the Soil Conservation Service, now the NRCS, and other agencies. A major concern was the exodus from family farms and the countryside. These concerns let to the programs collectively called the farm safety net. These programs evolved over the decades. Over time, and as programs evolved, many producers and elected representatives felt these programs, while protecting producers, inhibited U.S. agriculture and held back items such as crop diversification and producer income. So in 1995, “Freedom to Farm” was enacted that rolled or changed many traditional programs of the previous six decades. This change, largely developed by Senator Pat Roberts and K-State Ag. Economist Barry Flinchbaugh, did indeed provide much more freedom to producers. A main focus of this was using crop insurance to assist producers from risk with less reliance on taxpayer support. Many other programs did and still do exist, however, this was a radical departure.

Briefly and with apologies to policy experts, producers were freed to plant a variety of crops without penalty and more easily diversify. Emphasis was placed on risk management, both agronomically and economically. Certain assistance was put in place to aid this transition and to protect the environment. Insurance was required to qualify for programs. The upside was the ability to follow the money when cropping to increase income. And while this may sound strange – more volatile, less stable markets. Previous policy protected producers and kept them in business, however, for a variety of factors, it “took the top” off the market. This meant that prices could go higher and producers could take advantage of this fact. However, there was a downside.

Producers were able to enjoy higher prices (just go back a few years) and higher profits. However, this also leaves producers more exposed to low prices with much less protection during the low part of the cycle. Overall, producers are less protected today than twenty-five years ago but also better able to reap higher profits on the upside. This has continued through subsequent iterations of the Farm Bill. Next week, what does all this mean today and where are we currently headed.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.