Dana Peterson is a Middle America farm girl who has spent much of her professional life as a Washington, D.C. lobbyist.
She knows agriculture and she knows politics, and she made it quite clear at a recent meeting of the North Carolina Wheat Growers Association that the political system in Washington is broken and farmers will have to pay a high price it it’s not fixed soon.
Peterson is currently CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
She sometimes takes a humorous look at Washington politics, but makes crystal clear the challenges farmers have in the coming years in getting a square deal from their elected officials.
She asks the question: Who is responsible for answering the letters and e-mails you send to your elected representatives and senators?
Is it the legislator’s press secretary, the senator or representative, the legislative assistant responsible for agriculture, or a 20 year old intern?
All too often it’s the intern, and that’s often the first disconnect between concerned farmers and agriculture leaders and the person the elected to work for them in Washington, she contends.
Peterson lists several reasons why senators and congressmen or congresswomen vote yes on a piece of legislation that directly affects farmers.
• Their constituency urges them to do this;
• They owe another member a favor, even though the legislation may not be in the best interest of their constituency;
• Vote yes will help be a chairmanship or other key legislative post;
• This vote will play well in the press;
• This vote will help me get re-elected;
• The national interest will be served by a yes vote;
• This vote will garner some campaign funds;
• This vote will position my party favorably among voters;
• I believe in the cause.
• The lobbyist who asked me to vote yes is particularly handsome or beautiful.
Unfortunately, Peterson says every one of these reasons is why a politician votes yes or no on a piece of legislation.
Common second point
If the elected official votes yes or no for most of these reasons, that’s a common second point of disconnect between them and their agricultural constituents.
“In October of 2010, the current Congress began hearings on annual appropriations, and it took until May of 2011 for our elected officials to decide how to spend our taxpayer money. Then the government had to raise the limit on how much money we can borrow just to pay our bills, she says.”
“In typical Washington bureaucratic style, the government responded to this challenge by forming a Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.”
To summarize, it failed, Peterson says. “Agriculture took the challenge seriously and put forward a heart-felt proposal that would have cut budgets for agricultural spending and the new committee paid little attention. It took until November for the agriculture proposal to make it through Congress and until December to fully fund the government.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this process is broken. We elect a new Congress every two years, and it takes a year and a half to get a budget passed for one year of that two-year term. Something is going to have to change,” Peterson says.
Despite the setbacks in establishing a reasonable budget for agriculture, the industry had some successes with the current Congress.
“In October, President Obama signed three free-trade agreements that will help agriculture. A reason for that success was the unified, strong voice that came from various agriculture support groups. “We worked hard and we worked together, and it paid off for agriculture,” Peterson says.
The Colombia Free Trade Agreement has the most immediate impact on U.S. wheat growers, she says.
“Our primary competitor for the Colombian market is Canada, and they passed a free trade agreement earlier in 2011, giving them a marketing head-start. However, we are certain we can make up that ground and rebuild our Colombian markets,” Peterson says.
“The next trade related legislation we need to work on is the Trans Pacific Partnership. Japan and Canada are considering joining the partnership and that’s particularly important to U.S. wheat growers. Japan is the top buyer of U.S. Wheat. And, Canada is our leading competition for international wheat markets.”
Japan has put up some significant trade barriers to protect their domestic agriculture interests. If they join the partnership, they will have to bring domestic support levels down and make our products more competitive pricewise in Japanese markets.
Biggest impact of politics
The biggest impact of politics on individual farms comes from the area of environmental regulation.
Congress worked all year trying to fix the results of several lawsuits that have come through the court system and force the EPA to implement regulations on farms — just like they do with any other U.S. business.
Failure to comply with these court cases, including the case for pesticide permits, for the TMTL issues in the Chesapeake Bay, the case for dust and particulant matter and for the spill prevention act; could cost farmers thousands of dollars per offense and in effect put some farmers out of business.
“We as agriculture must speak in a unified voice to find workable solutions to these legal cases. The current political system is not going to do it for us. We must find a long-term system for these types of law suits that come through the judicial system,” Peterson says.
In the shorter-term, she says, the 2012 farm bill, if it happens, will have a dramatic impact on farmers.
“What I hear from our farmers and our Board of Directors is the No. 1 priority for the farm bill is to keep some type of crop insurance program that will help farmers manage risk,” she adds.
Early on in the process it looked like agriculture might get by with a $10-$22 billion cut in the farm bill. That quickly gave way to calls for more $54 billion in cuts. A coalition of agriculture groups has brought forward a proposal that calls for $23 billion in cuts.
Peterson says there is a lot of work to do with Congress to keep cuts at $23 billion. “If cuts can be held at that level, that would leave about $30 billion for Title One programs. Farmers had better stick together to keep budget cuts at a manageable level, because there are plenty of groups who want take more and more money out of farm programs,” she says.
“We have got to find a Title One commodity program that compliments crop insurance that is so essential to so many farming operations,” she adds.
“Less than a million U.S. farmers produce over 90 percent of the food grown in the country, yet no one else is going to telling your success story. If you want politics to work for you and not against you, you must speak in a loud, uniform voice,” Peterson says.