Obama administration has a lot to live up to after Schafer leaves his post

FARGO, N.D. -- It didn't get much press, but Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer's recent address to a gathering of farm broadcasters was both a review of the Bush administration's farm policies and a challenge to the incoming Barack Obama admini...

FARGO, N.D. -- It didn't get much press, but Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer's recent address to a gathering of farm broadcasters was both a review of the Bush administration's farm policies and a challenge to the incoming Barack Obama administration.

Schafer, a former two-term North Dakota governor, is a short-timer in the USDA post. He's done good work in the brief time he's been on the job. He's distinguished himself as an advocate for administration ag policies and as the nonpartisan implementer-in-chief of provisions of the 2008 farm bill, some of which the administration opposed. Schafer has worked well with the multitude of agribusiness constituencies that supported the legislation and want provisions in place as soon as possible.

The secretary's address to farm broadcasters in Kansas City, Mo., covered a lot of ground. But his primary emphases were the unprecedented growth in the agriculture economy and the importance of trade for sustaining that growth. Export sales, he says, drive strong commodity prices at home. The global marketplace, he says, is vital to the health and welfare of the U.S. farm sector.

And therein was the challenge to President-elect Obama.

If trade is the vital centerpiece of the U.S. farm economy, Obama's statements and hints during the campaign are worrisome. He sent mixed messages about the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, a pact that has been in place since 1994. The free trade zone has stimulated continental trade and resulted in a jump in ag exports from $10 billion a year to an expected $30 billion this year.


Bilateral trade agreements, specifically with the Dominican Republic, have generated increased sales for U.S. farmers. Several bilateral agreements are pending, having been held up by the congressional Democrats, to the detriment of American ag trade. The president-elect, who certainly is beholden to Democrats in Congress who supported him, has a choice to make: Continue expanding agriculture trade via bilateral and other agreements, or kowtow to anti-trade Democrats in Congress who seem to be in the hip pockets of narrow, but powerful, special interests.

Schafer spoke directly to the incoming president: "I would encourage President-elect Obama," he said, "to take a hard look at the record of success with agriculture trade and not tear it down, but build upon it the strength that agriculture can bring to our exports, and in fact to the world."

The secretary got it right. He was speaking not only for the world's leading exporter of farm products, but also for the farmers and ranchers he knows so well from his life and work in North Dakota. In a healthy ag economy, all of its many sectors depends on trade. Schafer understands that reality. Farmers, ranchers and agribusiness people can only hope the new president gets it, too.

-- Fargo (N.D.) Forum

A rough road may be ahead

MITCHELL, S.D. -- What a tumbling, roller-coaster ride it has been for the region's farmers.

Corn farmers have been blessed with great prices and an insatiable demand for their product. Exceptional growing seasons have given the region bountiful crops. The drought appears to be over, and the hayfields were a carpet of green in 2008.

But input costs -- everything ranging from gas to run the tractors to skyrocketing fertilizer prices -- dampened what otherwise would have been high spirits.


Then, it rained throughout October. A snowstorm earlier in November put the state's harvest further in jeopardy and icy showers have compounded the troubles for those with crops still in the field.

Now, the most recent edition of FBNews, the official newspaper of the American Farm Bureau Federation, proclaims with a Page 1 headline that "Tough times are ahead for farm economy."

A few excerpts:

"You can't get away from all the bad news lately about the U.S. economy. Unfortunately, the tough times extend into the agriculture economy as well.

"Crop producers will have to take on more risk in 2009 as corn and soybean prices fall and the cost of production continues to go up."

The report quotes AFBF economist Terry Francl, who says "unless crop prices recover or input costs decline, many lenders are likely to challenge farmers as to whether they should be growing (corn and soybeans) in 2009. At a minimum, there is likely to be less credit available unless the numbers change significantly over the next few months."

We are not experts in farm economy, but we realize this: When the farm economy is good, the overall economy in a farm state corresponds favorably. When the farm economy sours, it adds to economic troubles we already may face.

South Dakota's ag economy has been one of the shining lights in this time of economic slowdown. To hear that the FBNews is predicting "tough times" ahead for farmers is terribly disheartening.


-- Mitchell (S.D.) Daily Republic

Withholding farm aid

is for the best

NEW YORK -- After months of enabling Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, South Africa has decided to withhold $30 million in farm aid until there is a representative government in Zimbabwe's capital Harare.

Mugabe is refusing to honor a power-sharing deal negotiated with his rival Morgan Tsvangirai -- the man who should be Zimbabwe's president. Tsvangirai won the first round of voting but was forced to withdraw from the runoff by Mugabe's army-backed thugs.

South Africa's decision to withhold farm aid from a population in distress seems cruel. But the affected assistance includes fertilizer, farm equipment and fuel -- which are not needed until next year's planting season. American officials and experts say any aid given directly to the government would only benefit Mugabe, not ordinary citizens.

What Zimbabwe urgently needs is food. More than two months ago, the United Nations World Food Program appealed for $140 million more to directly feed Zimbabweans in need. So far, it has not received firm commitments. Washington, the biggest donor, gave $186 million in humanitarian assistance in 2008.

-- New York Times

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