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Published February 06, 2012, 09:44 AM

If you were an urban congressman ...

Planting, harvesting and marketing a crop isn’t easy. But it’s child’s play compared with writing a new farm bill.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Planting, harvesting and marketing a crop isn’t easy. But it’s child’s play compared with writing a new farm bill.

As Agweek readers know, the U.S. farm bill, the federal government’s main agricultural and food policy tool, needs to be reauthorized this year.

The pressure is really on farm-state senators and representatives. The farm bill is vitally important to many of their constituents, and what the politicians achieve (or fail to achieve) can have a huge impact on both their state’s economy and their reelection chances.

Thousands of farmers and hundreds of farm and agribusiness groups are jostling for position to tell farm-state politicians what’s important and what isn’t. Also in the tumultuous mix are the critics of U.S. farm policy who shout to Congress and the world that fundamental changes must be made.

Don’t feel sorry for farm-state legislators, though. Crafting a farm bill is part of what they signed on for when they ran for office.

It’s different for senators and representatives whose states and districts include little or no production agriculture. For them, a new farm bill isn’t a priority. Nor should it be, given their constituents.

Residents of the Northern Plains can be too quick, especially when a farm bill is being written, to attack the intelligence and integrity of urban legislators. Oh, sure, a few of the legislators are fools or frauds or both. Of course, voters in farm states have elected our share of fools and frauds, too.

A little game of pretend

Pretend you serve in the U.S. House and represent, say, part of a big city on the East Coast. Also pretend that, before entering politics, you were, say, a lawyer and never once in your life have set foot on a farm.

Now, in 2012, your district faces serious problems. Unemployment is rampant, your roads and schools need more money, businesses both big and small are struggling. And while you may not be a fiscal conservative, common sense tells you that the growing federal deficit isn’t a good thing and that spending needs to be curtailed.

So the time comes once again to write a new farm bill, and you hear that crop prices are high and farmers generally are making nice profits. To you, spending on farm programs seems a logical thing to cut.

Oh, your colleagues from the farm states insist that farmers need a safety net — and that without one, America’s reliable supply of affordable food would be threatened. Your colleagues swear on a stack of Bibles that farm programs aren’t the right place to save money.

You figure there may be some truth in what your colleagues say. But money is scarce, and your primary obligation is to the people who elected you. So you decide, in good conscience, to hack a little on farm programs.

The takeaway from this game of pretend-you’re-an-urban- congressman?

To me, an agricultural journalist, the 2012 farm bill is a big deal. To most Agweek readers, the 2012 farm bill is a big deal.

To most Americans — and the folks who represent them in Congress — the farm bill is no more than a tiny blip on a crowded radar screen. That doesn’t make them bad Americans or bad legislators.

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Knutson welcomes comments about his column. Mail comments to him at Box 6008, Grand Forks, N.D. 58206-6008. Email him at or phone him at 701-780-1111. Knutson is a staff writer for Agweek.