Friday, December 26, 2008

What Would You Do?

That is the question that Yeoman posed in the comments of my "A New Secretary" blog post. I think it is a great question ... such a great question in fact that I wanted to move it to the front page so that everyone would be sure to see it. I would love to hear all things, from just a little thought to something that may have been kicking around in your head for awhile. It is one thing to know that there is a problem, but if we can come up with some workable (or even pipe dream) solutions we are better off.

So, here is Yeoman's question:
If you (dear reader, and Ethan) were appointed Ag Sec, what would you do.

We'll presume (a big presumption) actual support from the President, and Congress.

So, if you had the reins of power, in ag, what would you do?
There you have it. The question has been posed and now I'm sure we would all love to hear some thoughts. I'll kick in with mine pretty soon.

9 comments:

Rich said...

Since Yeoman reposted his comment, I guess I'll repost mine (with some revisions and additions).

First, I would suggest removing programs like the Food Stamp Program from the Department of Agriculture. Food stamps should have little to do with agriculture and moving it to another department (if not eliminating it completely) would allow a more accurate accounting of the budget.

Of course, I would work towards eliminating or significantly reducing subsidies (all subsidies, not just crop subsidies), although I admit it would need to be phased in and balanced with how other nations eliminate their subsidies and price supports (which might be an impossible task).

I would eliminate programs that idle land, like CRP. In combination with the elimination of crop subsidies, land values would hopefully start to stabilize towards a true value.

In my previous comment I suggested helping beginning farmers and ranchers by establishing some sort of nation-wide "clearinghouse" that would help landowners find farmers/ranchers to rent their land, and help beginning farmers/ranchers find land. After further thought about that suggestion, I am not so sure that is a role that government should play or if it would actually work.

After even more thought about the role played by the Ag Secretary and after looking around the USDA and FSA websites, I wonder if the Ag Secretary and the USDA is actually designed to help farmers and ranchers or is it designed to deal with issues like food stamps, food safety and regulations, farm lending, and ethanol production?

If the Ag Secretary sees his (or her) role as simply regulating agricultural production instead of a "purely" farming and ranching role, will the right kind of answers come out of it or any other government agency? Most of the answers I saw on the USDA website were mainly government handouts to farmers, ranchers, or industry to do what the government felt was absolutely necessary. When the current Farm Bill expires a new set of priorities will be established and money will be thrown at the newly discovered set of problems. I wonder if government officials want the "problems" to ever go away, what would happen to their jobs if there wasn't anything to "fix"?

Murph said...

Very interesting post. I have been a long time "lurker" who has made a few ANON posts. I think I know WAY TOO LITTLE to fully contribute, but I have a few ideas. We need to make it financially possible for small family farms to exist and we need to level the playing field between industrial agriculture and small family farms.

I have recently encountered two situations that truly bother me about our food system. I was in Maine on vacation this fall and passed a closed mussel farm. Upon asking one of the locals why it closed, I was told it was due to a rescinding (sp?) of Canadian tariffs on seafood. Canadian mussels were being imported for 2/3 the price of american mussels, basically due to the shift in currency value.

The other situation was reading a blog post for a lady in Kentucky who a few years ago discontinued her herb farm due to basil (her main cash crop) being imported from Mexico for 1/3(!) the price. The new imports were due to NAFTA being signed into law.

I agree with Rich that the CRP program is truly a waste of time and money, and food stamps should not be controlled by AG.

We need to create mentoring opportunities for young farmers and low-interest land loans to facilitate the purchase of new farms. We also need to find a way to keep second/third/fourth generation farmers on the farm.

Sorry my details are lacking. I just wanted to get a few things off my chest.

Murph

Yeoman said...

Rich pointed out I messed up. I meant to re-post my comment here (thanks Rich). Here goes:


Wow Ethan, thanks!

Well, having posted the question, I'll repost my answer, here's what I'd do.

First of all, I'd ask the President to abolish the Department of the Interior and merge it with Agriculture. Interior need not exist, for the most part, and it's bipolar anyway, with so many competing interest it has to satisfy. It's main purpose, whether it recognizes it or not, is agriculture, as without agriculture (ranching, silvaculture, and the like) it really isn't managing anything.

Okay, as ag sec, I'd now manage the interior too.

I'd favor individually owned farms and ranches. No big outfits. No corporations. And the producers, the meat packers and the like, would have to be more in number, and smaller, as well.

I'd put the end to the development of ag land. They're not making any more.

I'd support the end of subsidies, but I'd encourage farming, rather than the retirement of agricultural ground, as has sometimes been encouraged.

I'd require imported agricultural products to be subject to the same standards as our own. I wouldn't seek to keep foreign products out, but I would expect foreign products to be subject to our standards.

That's a starter. I'm really looking forward to the other posts here!

Yeoman said...

Blogger Rich said...

"First, I would suggest removing programs like the Food Stamp Program from the Department of Agriculture. Food stamps should have little to do with agriculture and moving it to another department (if not eliminating it completely) would allow a more accurate accounting of the budget."

I quite agree. There's a lot of budget inaccuracy that's created by miscasting one project as benefiting something else. This is a classic example. The food stamp program, which may or may not be a good program, is not an agricultural program. Indeed, a large percentage of most farm bills has nothing to do with agriculture whatsoever.

"I would eliminate programs that idle land, like CRP. In combination with the elimination of crop subsidies, land values would hopefully start to stabilize towards a true value."

I have mixed feelings about CRP. In some ways, I feel it to be a good program, that helped stop the "fence to fence" emphasis that once existed. On the other hand, it's a terribly abused program.

I would go to a "no net loss" of farmland program, and that would require quite extensive legislative acts. In this area, I think I might favor a program of retiring "crop" land in favor of the government reacquiring failed crop land, but only on the condition that it became either grazing land, or forest. And by forest, I mean managed (i.e. logging) forest. Some farm land is frankly marginal, and I wouldn't stand against its conversion into something else, as long as that conversion didn't mean houses, or parks. Parks are, quite frankly, unnatural. Grazing land is darned near the state of nature, as are forests. But only when they're used.

Yeoman said...

Murph said:

"I have recently encountered two situations that truly bother me about our food system. I was in Maine on vacation this fall and passed a closed mussel farm. Upon asking one of the locals why it closed, I was told it was due to a rescinding (sp?) of Canadian tariffs on seafood. Canadian mussels were being imported for 2/3 the price of american mussels, basically due to the shift in currency value."

Murph, welcome on board!

One other change I'd like to see, to our economy as a whole, is to make a change that reflects government caused competitive advantages. The American economy, mostly because our government favored the cheap import economy, suffers greatly from allowing foreign governments competitive advantages that have nothing to do with the "natural" economic advantage of one thing or another.

What I'd propose to do to fix this is to add a tax to imports reflecting a government caused advantage, or local disadvantage. So, for example, where we have a cost addition due to an environmental law, or have a disadvantage due to a foreign subsidy, I'd add a tax on to reflect that factor in the price.

Yes, this would add an entire level of new bureaucracy, but one that may be needed. Where, for example our products cost more due to our (good) environmental laws, and some foreign competitor lacks them, let's tax them. Where some foreign government supports some farm sector with cash, let's wipe out that advantage by a tax.

Of course, we do that too. And perhaps some foreign government would retaliate. But then, that'd encourage us to eliminate our subsidies as well.

Rich said...

Expanding on an idea proposed by Yeoman in which he stated:

"...I'd put the end to the development of ag land..."

"...I would go to a "no net loss" of farmland program...I might favor a program of retiring "crop" land in favor of the government reacquiring failed crop land, but only on the condition that it became either grazing land, or forest..."

While I agree that it is disheartening when historic western ranches are divided up into small ranchettes (poor imitations of what was destroyed), is that a role that government should or can play?

Wouldn't restricting the development of agricultural lands just be a form of zoning, that would make it difficult to maintain and construct the infrastructure needed for a farm or ranch to operate?

As an example, how would the next generation continue on the ranch if new ranch housing couldn't be constructed, or the farm couldn't add a new structure to develop a different portion of the farm? It always seems that more government restrictions almost always have unintended consequences that hurt rather than help.

Of course, ideas for change are usually in response to local conditions and history, which makes it difficult to create an overall plan for the entire state, region, or country.

On a related thought, what role do land developments like solar power arrays, wind farms, and cell phone towers play? I can't help but think that the current escalation in land values is somewhat related to investors buying land on the gamble that something like a wind farm will be built in the future.

Yeoman said...

"Wouldn't restricting the development of agricultural lands just be a form of zoning, that would make it difficult to maintain and construct the infrastructure needed for a farm or ranch to operate?"

It'd be a form of zoning, to be sure, but if done properly, the problem you note would not have to arise. The use of the land could simply be restricted to those who derive their income primarily from agriculture, or at least from the land.

That would actually make it easier, or cheaper, to operate, as it would generally have the effect of lowering property taxes. In most places, real estate is taxed at a rate reflecting its "highest and best use", as that's how the land is valued by assessors. If the property's only use, or primary use, was agriculture, the taxes would tend to remain low.

Anyhow, you can achieve the goal of no net loss of farm land simply by restricting the use of the ground to agriculture, and it's holding to those in agriculture. That would not impact the building of agricultural buildings.

Rich said...

"...it would generally have the effect of lowering property taxes. In most places, real estate is taxed at a rate reflecting its "highest and best use", as that's how the land is valued by assessors. If the property's only use, or primary use, was agriculture, the taxes would tend to remain low..."

But isn't that the case already? In my area, agricultural land already has lower property taxes. In fact blocks of land that are within the city limits are (or were) still "farmed" (in a way), to keep the taxes lower until they are developed.

How would agriculture or the farmer/rancher benefit legislation that kept land designated as agriculture simply for the sake of keeping it as agricultural land?

Personally, I wouldn't want to farm a piece of property surrounded by houses, busy highways, neighbors complaining about the noise or smell, etc.

Of course, my minds-eye of a farm involves livestock and machinery, so a vegetable farm might be a perfect fit for a suburban area.

Yeoman said...

"But isn't that the case already? In my area, agricultural land already has lower property taxes. In fact blocks of land that are within the city limits are (or were) still "farmed" (in a way), to keep the taxes lower until they are developed."

Oh no, that's not the way it is many places.

It isn't that way universally here.

And it isn't that way anywhere for your Capitol Gains tax, or your Gift and Estate Tax. Both of those are taxed at the highest and best use level. It doesn't matter if you have a 5,000 acre hay farm, next to town. To the tax man, that's 5,000 city lots, if so zoned, or even if possible.

On my way to my city job, I pass a horse pasture. Taxed as residential lots. It's for sale now, now way you can make that pay off as a pasture.

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