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 downgrading of USA debt rating, and the wobbly economy, mean the USDA budget will be drastically diminished. When he was Secretary, he said, about 63% of the USDA budget went to nutrition programs like SNAP and school meals; but now that figure is up to about 83% leaving only about 17% for actual farm programs. "Be prepared for further downgrades," Johanns said. "The weak economy will inevitably have a huge influence on the next ag bill."
- "There will be no sacred cows," Johanns said in reference to impending budget cuts. The USDA ethanol subsidies that have aided and abetted the spread of GMO corn across the Heartland is all but certain to be cut. "There just aren't votes for it," said Johanns, who has been a big supporter of the subsidies in the past. Undoubtedly the decline of support among other Senators is the basic realization that it takes more energy and money to produce a gallon of ethanol than you can get from it. It's a losing proposition.
- The 2012 Farm Bill is on its way, Johanns also noted, but he expects that nothing much will happen this year (2011). As he sees it, there is no momentum for action in either the Senate or the House. The key areas of debate for the 2012 farm bill will be around crop insurance, the safety net for farmers.
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."