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Farmers, farm organizations, Congressional policymakers, learned academics and many others have worked hard to create a stable farm policy for American agriculture that can be tweaked from year to year to make sure its steady path efficiently feeds those who are hungry here and abroad. 

Farm bills are complex documents that provide a steady hand to the USDA’s efforts in Washington and farmers efforts in planting a crop.

Then along came Twitter, and a president who conducts global trade and farm policy by tweet. And American agriculture looks like the proverbial “fruit basket upset.”

Last week, the secretary of agriculture said there would not be a repeat of the $12 billion market facilitation payments his agency issued last year. But Monday he learned on Twitter the president had promised a new round of $15 billion in payments to “patriot farmers” who may be financially hurt by new Chinese tariffs that were applied in retaliation to the latest White House tariffs on imports from China.

U.S. agriculture readily endorsed the 1995 farm bill that moved farm policy away from supply management to crop production that was market driven.  And farmers have been successful in doing that, producing abundant crops, until the market suddenly evaporated in a trade war. Trade wars can quickly escalate, much more rapidly than crops can be planted, grown and harvested. And most farmers have tired of seeing market prices diminish because of global trade battles that were not predicted when it was time to buy seed and fertilizer.

Even the secretary of agriculture has had critical words for farmers who were planning to raise soybeans this year, despite China’s withdrawal from purchases of U.S. soybeans. For a Corn Belt farm that has raised corn and soybeans for decades, such a shift is not easily accomplished.

Tuesday morning, top USDA officials met with farm broadcasters to discuss the day-to-day shifts in farm policy and how farmers can reasonably respond. 

Although with only 30% of corn and 6% of soybeans planted in mid-May, it is still impossible for farms to shift their plans in any reasonable way to survive a trade war that has destroyed the market for America’s most valuable crop.

At the USDA meeting, officials said they “do not want the new round of trade mitigation payments to influence planting decisions, and that farmers should plant for the market and not for any payments.” Farmers would be quick to say they would rather have the market than the payment, but by the way, what is the market today, and what will it be when the crop is harvested and ready to sell?

In an era when farm income has been cut in half over the past five years, and now the primary market has been lost for the nation’s primary crop of soybeans, there is no question why the mental health of farmers has declined to the point the suicide rate is rapidly climbing.

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Stu Ellis is an observer of the Central Illinois agriculture scene. In addition to his weekly column, you can view his “From The Farm” and “Harvest Heritage” reports on WCIA 3 News.

 

 

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