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We need to talk
By Alan Guebert
Rare is the day when either an editor or several readers do not call or e-mail to note the heavy population of facts residing in this space. Most of the comments arrive with a quick, left jab first, followed by a soft pat on the back second: “I often disagree with you, but I can’t argue your facts.”

My reaction to this mixed message is as straight as a frozen rope: great.

Great because my work is done once the facts are placed in your hands and planted in your cerebrum for, unlike most farm groups and political leaders who insist on “educating” you, my only ambition is to inform you.

After all, once you have the facts you’re smart enough to educate yourself, right?

For example, if forced to choose either Bach, Beethoven or Bono as the greatest composer in history you and I could debate the merits of each until the cows come home.

At some point in the conversation, however, little facts will emerge that might color your choice. Facts like Bach raised 20 children, wrote all six of his Brandenburg Concertos in one year, authored 300 cantatas and his collected works fill more than 60 volumes. And, oh, he was Lutheran.

If that information doesn’t move you to choose my music man, Bach, fine, because the choice isn’t as important as the conversation. It’s the conversation where information is shared, experiences are offered and knowledge is gained.

So let’s talk.

Let’s talk about the impact of, say, America’s unchecked trade deficit. The Commerce Department recently announced the U.S. trade deficit for September was a one-month record, $66 billion. The previous single month record, $60 billion, was hit in August.

Another fact: $20 billion of the $66 billion was shipped to China.

Moreover, if that one-month deficit to China is annualized, America’s trade tab to our low wage friend across the Pacific will eclipse $240 billion this year.

How much is $240 billion? That princely sum is nearly equal to the entire gross value ($242 billion) of all U.S. farm production in 2003.

How long can America accumulate debt equal to entire sectors of its economy and remain an economic power? Not long, of course, but today’s trade conversation is more about free trade and less about less trade debt. This one-sidedness almost always closes the conversation - and the door - before any search for alternatives can be mounted.

All that free trade chatter eerily echoes the babble by Congress and the White House to move farm programs from a production-based payment scheme to more of a “green,” or conservation-based, farm program.

Great, but the facts to date are inarguable. The 2002 Farm Bill, like its 1996 predecessor, increased production-based payments and under-funded most conservation efforts, like the very innovative, very green Conservation Security Program (CSP).

Even worse, the current five-year Budget Reconciliation bill now in Congress makes a giant mockery of any green-based Farm Bill for 2007.

As proposed, the reconciliation package cuts conservation spending through 2010 by $760 million ($500 million of the total comes from CSP), eliminates all funding for USDA’s Renewable Energy program (effectively removing it entirely from inclusion in the 2007 Farm Bill), cuts organic farming cost share programs and eliminates every penny of the $460 million ag research and ag extension competitive grant programs to aid small or moderately-sized farms.

And all this comes on top of the 2006 USDA budget that slices $507 million from this year’s conservation programs.

Geez, don’t we need to at least talk about the dramatic - and in some instances, terminal - consequences of such an anti-green policy switch (based on the worst of all possible reasons, money) before blithely enacting it?

And where are the facts - the cost-benefit analysis of its impact on rural jobs, rural development, national energy independence, water and air quality; the impact such a change will have on global trade talks, today’s flagging trade; how will this move alter the search for tomorrow’s knowledge at our Land Grant universities and private foundations?

I don’t know. But I do know we need to talk.

This Views and Opinions piece was published in the November 23, 2005 issue of Farm World.

11/23/2005