One of my favorite musicals is Fiddler On The Roof. Not only is the music amazing, but the story is extremely powerful and relevant. Tevya, the father of the family, begins the play by singing about tradition and about how important tradition is to their family, their community, and their faith. As the story unfolds, his three daughters test his commitment to those traditions. The first daughter wants to marry the man she loves, not the man the matchmaker picks out. The second daughter falls in love with a revolutionary activist from the city. The third daughter falls in love with a man outside of their Jewish faith. In the first two cases, the father gives in even though it is against his principles. In the third case, however, he refuses to compromise his faith. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had the audacity to ask American farmers to do the same thing at the AFBF annual meeting last week in Nashville.
During his speech to Farm Bureau members, Vilsack urged them to reach out and form alliances with other groups and find common ground on ag issues. He cited the failure to get a farm bill passed as an example of how agriculture has lost its political clout and needs to find new friends outside of traditional farm sectors. This is a message the former Iowa governor has been preaching for the past month. Back in December, he stirred up a hornets’ nest when he said rural America was no longer relevant. The idea of reaching out and building common ground on important issues is a good one; but, in Nashville, the secretary went one step further.
During a press conference after his remarks, he suggested mainstream agriculture, like Farm Bureau, should sit down and find common ground with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). According to Vilsack, “Now I know that there are not too many fans of the Humane Society in this room. But egg producers thought it was in their best interest to avoid 50 different referendums, 50 different sets of rules. So they sat down with folks and they reached common ground. After all, isn’t that what we’re asking our Congress to do? Isn’t that what we’re asking our political leaders to do? To sit down and make common cause? I think the egg producers have the right idea.” This suggestion not only raised a few eyebrows in Nashville, but raised some tempers on farms across the country.
AFBF is on record as opposing the agreement between large egg producers and HSUS which would set the precedent of letting the federal government legislate agricultural production standards. The deal came about because HSUS intimidated the egg industry which then turned “chicken” and agreed to the deal. Most farm groups have condemned the agreement, and most other livestock groups are also opposed to it. For the secretary to come to the AFBF meeting and make such a suggestion shows just how out of touch he is with agriculture and what this administration really thinks about farmers. There may also be a hidden agenda at work here.
Last fall, Vilsack’s wife Christie ran for Congress in Iowa. She was defeated by incumbent Republican Steve King, a strong supporter of agriculture. The Secretary himself actively campaigned for his wife, but what is more interesting is that HSUS spent $500,000 to produce and air attack ads against King. Does Vilsack have a connection to HSUS? I will leave that for the conspiracy theory folks. Suffice it to say that to have the head of USDA promoting cooperation with an activist organization whose stated goal is to do away with animal agriculture is extremely disturbing.
This is just the latest in a series of events that demonstrate how anti-agriculture the current administration is. First, the labor department tried to keep kids off the farm, then the EPA flies spy planes over livestock farms to catch pollution violations, and now the USDA wants farmers to kowtow to the animal rights activists.
It is time we draw a line in the sand. Other major industries have been bailed out and propped up by the Obama White House; agriculture is a major industry in the U.S. It is time we get the same respect and attention that the banking, housing, and automotive sectors get. While agriculture is not as visible to the public as some of these other sectors, a collapse in agriculture would have just as much impact on the average person as a collapse of some of these other sectors.
It is not that agriculture is weak as the secretary suggests, but that we are unfocused and unorganized. While progress has been made in bringing diverse groups together, much more needs to be done. Agribusiness also needs to be more involved. Farmer organizations need to work closely on policy issues with ag business groups. Farmers need to demand the people they do business with support them on local, state and policy issues. Compromising our principles and giving up control to groups that do not accept our right to exist is not the key to the future of agriculture. The secretary of agriculture should spend more time talking about the strengths of agriculture instead of our weaknesses and talking with the president about our economic impact rather than our political impotence.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers with questions or comments for Gary Truitt may write to him in care of this publication.