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Reading the mail
By Alan Guebert
Food & Farm File
While Thanksgiving leftovers may be your bane, my growing, glowing stack of reader mail threatens to topple and injure Maggie, the suds-swilling guard dog drooling at my feet.

A quick shuffle through the pile - down, Maggie, down! - reveals caustic, constructive and even complimentary correspondence.

“Whining about farm policy through a third party source and using selective statistics makes for coffee shop talk, not journalism,” e-mails Roger from Nebraska, adding, “...you are capable of bringing some solutions to the table rather than playing the blame game on ‘big government’ and ‘big corporations.’”

Oh, how I wish you were right, Roger. Now, however, anywhere anyone turns in U.S. agriculture, the Big Corporate and Government Boys are the story. They run the show from Dubuque to Doha, from Maine to Monsanto.

Worse, most farm and commodity groups (usually the same people, incidentally) have bought into the agribiz model. Trouble is, the model works for agbiz but not for ag producers.

For example, Cargill’s annual sales climbed from $49.4 billion in 2001 to $71.1 billion in 2005 while its net earnings rocketed from $358 million in ’01 to $2.1 billion in 2005.

Even more interesting, Cargill’s main competitor, ADM, never suffered. ADM pocketed $383 million in profit from sales of $19.5 billion in 2001. Four years later, profit was a record $1.04 billion and sales a near-record $36 billion.

No American grain or livestock-producing sector witnessed a similar growth - a near doubling of sales and a sextupling and tripling of net profit - over the same period.

If farmers and ranchers want the real story, follow the money. Or the stench.

A late-October “Not Milk” column that explained how milk processors were seeking Food and Drug Administration approval to add (mostly imported) milk protein concentrates to fluid milk drew a, ahem, bucket of responses.

“Just because milk is outsourced to New Zealand - or India or anywhere else outside the USA - doesn’t make it detrimental, does it?” wrote Elizabeth, a Midwestern college professor.

In fact, she noted, “I am informed that New Zealand doesn’t use antibiotics or hormones in their milk like the USA does, so using milk from abroad tends to comfort me rather than scare me.”

A valid point, Elizabeth, and one, I hope, scares and discomforts antibiotic-addicted, hooked-on-hormones U.S. producers who are somehow convinced that America, a milk-deficit nation, will become a global dairy exporter. The opposite is, in fact, happening.

It came as no surprise that no one at USDA wrote to befriend the agency’s woefully shortsighted September plan to shutter 30 percent of its Farm Service Agency county offices. Nor was it a surprise that many county FSA administrators did write after a column labeled USDA’s explanation for the closures silly and “hogwash.”

“Many of us,” wrote one county exec from Indiana whose comments echoed a slew of letters from FSA employees, “are not opposed to closing some offices. We are taxpayers, too...

“However, it is discouraging (to) watch our administrators consistently not ask (Congress) for the resources we need... or allocate resources they do have to their pet projects rather than do what makes sense. Thanks for setting the record straight.”

Many, many readers wrote with compliments on the two columns in the past six months that left policy and politics for the less profound and more personal - memories of a misspent youth on a yellow school bus and the big Thanksgiving sleepover at SS Club Guebert.

“I just read your piece: Color Summer’s End Yellow,” e-mailed Patricia from somewhere. “Again, you did what most writers can only attempt. You put me on that yellow bus. I cannot say that I agree always with your perspective... but you always give me something to think about.”

“Liked your Thanksgiving one,” noted Jack, who identified himself as “just an old country doctor.”

“Such humor, as my kids would say.” He then signed it “Jack, TWBD retired (you figure it out.)”

I haven’t, Jack.

Other e-mailers took that column as an invite to the annual Go to Gueberts and Stay Until Spring Festival.

Fine. Just bring Maggie several months of liquid refreshments she can share.

Published in the November 30, 2005 issue of Farm World.

11/30/2005