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Overheard at the County Fair

Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) faced raw voter intensity last week, as news accounts told the tale. At a town meeting in the capital city of Lincoln on Monday, August 8, he heard from a variegated crop of angry Nebraskans venting from the right and the left about America's dizzily declining economic prospects and the political ploys in Washington that provoked the most recent twists and downturns.

But when Johanns arrived at the Lancaster County Fair later that afternoon, the scene was serious and generally sedate. He came to the fairgrounds to talk about the farming outlook for the nation and for Nebraska. Because he is a former Secretary of the USDA (2005-07), and current member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, his words have potential for resonance. But he didn't say much. He was smooth, polished, and adroit at skirting potential triggers of controversy. His main points of information:

The meeting soon gave way to questions. Chuck Hassebrook stood to ask Johanns to take a good look at the Grassley Johnson Rural America Preservation Act. Proposed by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IN) and Tim Johnson (D-SD), if made into law the act would close loopholes and make the existing subsidy limits real.

Hassebrook, who is not only executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs but also a Regent for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a major land-grant institution, said that it’s time to put an end to mega subsidies for mega farms.

He said we need to put effective and meaningful caps on payments to the nation’s largest farms because in his view we cannot afford them, and they harm rural America since the payments are often used to drive smaller operations out of business.

In the late August afternoon at the county fair, though, the most heartfelt and insightful message came from Nancy Packard of Lincoln. She attended the listening session with her elderly mother. Ms. Packard introduced herself as a Nebraskan with deep roots. She noted the Heartland farming efforts of her father, her grandfather, and her great grandfather.

"It takes 10,000 years to make a prairie," Ms. Packard said, "I know that because I have been working on re-establishing the prairie on a piece of our land for 20 years. It's not easy ... Now we are using this resource, this ancient beautiful prairie soil not to grow food but to grow GMO corn with toxic chemicals to supplement fuel for motor vehicle fuel. It's very, very wrong.

"We need to go back to smaller, family scale farms," she told Senator Johanns. "And we need to stop ripping up and destroying the earth for energy. We need to draw our strength from the land and our energy from the Sun."