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Plain Living: Check's in the mail

I know a farmer who’s the epitome of Upper Midwest nice. He’s unflaggingly calm, friendly and soft-spoken, as pleasant and enjoyable as a warm, sunny spring afternoon with no wind or mosquitoes.

But I once saw him get riled up. It happened when he told me of the time he sat in an East Coast airport and mentioned to the guy in the next seat that he’s a farmer. As he recalled it, the other guy nodded and muttered something about farmers waiting by the mailbox to receive their next government check.

“It made me so mad, I couldn’t see straight,” the normally placid farmer told me. “I tried to explain how hard we work and how much risk there is. It didn’t do any good, though. Even thinking about it now makes me mad.”

Just about every farmer I talk with — young or old, intense or easygoing, Farm Bureau Republican or Farmers Union Democrat — seems to have a similar story. They say they constantly battle the unfair perception that farmers are waiting by the mailbox to collect their federal check. (The money doesn’t actually go out by check anymore, not with direct deposit. But that’s nitpicking; check or direct deposit isn’t the issue.)

Yeah, farmers say, sometimes we get government payments. But only in the years when prices or yields are really bad. Getting those payments keeps us in business; they’re the safety net that allows Americans to enjoy the world’s cheapest, safest and most plentiful food supply. Besides, other countries help their farmers, and that hurts our exports and the prices we receive; federal payments just offset that.

Decide for yourselves if those arguments are valid and sufficient. But they’re clearly unconvincing to the many Americans who see payments as wasteful subsidies, not a safety net or countermeasure to what other countries do.

Check’s in the mail, farmers are feeding at the public trough, the critics sneer.

In play again

Whatever you call them, farm payments are an issue again this fall.

Because grain prices are low and revenue is down, farmers across the Upper Midwest will collect money through the federal Agricultural Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs, which were created by the 2014 farm bill. ARC protects against falling revenue. PLC provides payments when crop prices fall.

The critics are complaining already, and it’s just a matter of time until the general public does, too.

So get ready once again, Upper Midwest farmers, to hear “check’s in the mail.”

And get ready once again to tell your side. It might not accomplish anything, just like it didn’t do any good for the nice farmer in the East Coast airport. But, like him, you need to make the effort.

Editor’s note: Knutson is an Agweek staff writer.