Jack Block: Down on the Farm

By former USDA Secretary John R. Block

I was wondering if spring would ever come. We had snow on the farm just 3 weeks ago. Suddenly, things changed. The sun came out, and it began to dry and warm the soil.

I’m on the farm this week, and almost overnight we have all of our corn planted and most of our soybeans. Much of the corn is up. I can row it. It is off to a beautiful start.

A lot has changed since I was a boy and my father planted corn with a 2-row corn planter pulled by 2 old horses. Farms are bigger and more efficient. Our planter today stretches for 32 rows. Food is cheap in the U.S. because we are so good at producing it. A family will spend less than 10% of their income for food. In many African countries, they spend more than 50% of their income just to eat.

Another big change is what we plant on our farm. You don’t have to look back many years when our fields were seeded with corn – just corn, maybe some oats. Not today. Corn and soybean acres are almost equal. For the nation, soybean acres may slightly exceed corn.

Anyway, it is exciting to be on the farm as the new crop emerges. But now, let’s turn to the farm bill. We call it a “farm bill,” but more than 60% of the money is spent on nutrition programs, including food stamps, etc. House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway would like to get the House bill passed next week. The cost of the farm bill will be $867 billion over 10 years. The fight will be over how the money is spent.

Republicans want to impose work requirements or training obligations on able-bodied recipients of food stamps. Democrats are against that. Also, a number of Conservative Republicans want to cut farm “safety net” supports, including crop insurance.

Finding an acceptable balance between the farm and food supporters has never been easy. We write a new bill every 5 years, and we deal with the same conflict every time. However, there has been value in having farm and food in the same bill. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

When it’s all said and done, I don’t expect this bill to be dramatically different than the one we have now.

If the Congress can’t pass a new bill this year, they will probably extend the old bill for 1 more year. In the meantime, let’s watch this crop grow.

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.  If you would like to review his radio shows going back more than 20 years, visit johnblockreports.com.

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