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Published November 26, 2012, 10:10 AM

Hedging words and ag subsidies

An ag columnist offers an explanation and asks a question.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Today’s column comes in two unrelated parts. The first involves an explanation, the second a question.

Here’s the first part:

Agriculture on the Northern Plains is volatile and varied. What’s true for one producer may not be true for a farmer in the next county or township. Conditions can vary greatly even from field to field.

That’s particularly true this year. The drought hit some producers far harder than others. Crop yields varied from tremendous to terrible; pasture conditions ranged from average to awful.

In a year like this, one-size-fits-all statements are risky, if not downright silly.

That’s where hedging words come in. Usually. Typically. Generally. Primarily. Normally. Overall.

They’re all words used by journalists and others to hedge a statement, to avoid stating something so strongly that it becomes untrue. A quick example: To say that Joe Smith harvests his wheat in August is true nine out of 10 years. But in the 10th year, when weather conditions are freakish, he might harvest in July or September. So, to hedge, I’ll write that Joe Smith “normally” harvests his wheat in August.

Hedging words should be avoided whenever possible. Too many of them make a sentence, or a news article, as insipid as a glass of lukewarm, watered-down lemonade. Too many of them indicate the writer hasn’t done enough research.

But sometimes hedging words are needed to make a statement, or a news article, both fair and accurate. Without them, a news article can be flat-out wrong.

Even careful readers can miss a hedging word. If you think a news article overstated or misstated something, look back to see if you overlooked a “normally” or “generally.”

I’ve used a lot of hedging words in the past year. Given growing conditions that were even more varied than usual, I’ve needed to. All of us involved in area agriculture have needed to.

In a perfect world I’d be able to write, “Every farmer across the region harvested tremendous crops, all of which were sold at record-high prices.”

But in the varied, imperfect world of Northern Plains’ agriculture, hedging words are a necessary evil.

Usually.

Here’s my question

A few years ago, a person outside agriculture asked me how farmers justify the federal subsidies they receive.

I tried to wiggle out of answering; after all, I’m a journalist, not a farmer. But the person kept pressing and finally I gave in.

My answer (minus some “um”s and “ah”s) went something like this: “I think most farmers would say U.S. agriculture provides a safe, affordable supply of food. I think most would say that subsidies create an economic safety net that protects the food supply.”

If you’re involved in area agriculture, you’ve almost certainly been asked by people outside ag how you justify federal subsidies.

I’m genuinely curious: How did you answer? Drop me a line and let me know.

With the fate of the farm bill up in the air — and the strong possibility of major cuts in federal ag spending — the answer is more important than ever.

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