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Our Disappearing Farmers, Dollars and Future

Like the water in the well that goes dry, you don’t miss it until it’s gone and then it is just too late. In a society where our supermarkets overflow with food of every description, the notion that America is forcing its already small population of farmers, ranchers, and dairymen to quit must seem odd.

I was reminded of this by a recent Business Week cover story, “Can Anyone Steer This Economy?” by Michael Mandel. He began by noting that sometime next year the U.S. will hit a milestone. “For the first time in recent memory, the cost of imported goods and services will exceed federal revenues. In other words, Americans will soon pay more to foreigners than they do to their national government.”

If you like imported oil, said some sage, you will love imported food. The price of imported food involves more than one might imagine. Among the cost will be the loss of America’s wheat-growing farms, once known as the breadbasket for the world. That’s because the cost of growing wheat is exceeding the price it can get. Unless a farm bill wandering around Congress looking for a vote insures that farmers can receive a rational target price and the farmers an appropriate direct payment, they will be out of business.

As Jerry Snyder, president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, says, if the situation remains as it is, “all wheat growers have a chance of becoming dinosaurs. We will cease to exist.” Right now “farmers are selling out, going broke, or leaving farming altogether.”

Why should we worry about some wheat farmers? Well, for one thing, when you start to import food there is no guarantee it has been grown under the same standards as here in the U.S. It simply will not be as safe to eat as homegrown food. For another, with all the wailing about being “energy independent”, what happens when Americans become dependent on other nations for our food supply? Think about this, for the first time since the 1930s, “we have a situation where gas was more than the price for a bushel of wheat.”

As Congress dawdles around about the farm bill, it also loses valuable time insuring that oil companies can drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and States resist permitting the exploration and extraction of oil and natural gas off our coastlines. Why is that important? For one thing, natural gas is an important component in the production of the fertilizers farmers use. For another, modern farming needs affordable gas and diesel fuel for its huge combines and other equipment.

If Congress wasn’t a perpetual drag on solving these problems, it is also the place where some truly awful “environmental” legislation was ginned up, one of the worst being the Endangered Species Act. Not merely just a gigantic failure in its own right, the ESA damn near drove the farmers in the Klamath River Basin in southwest Oregon and northwest California out of business back in 2001. That was when the Bureau of Reclamation shut off water to 210,000 irrigated acres and 1,400 farmers just as they began spring planting. This was done in the name of saving some useless fish specie.

It took the intercession of the National Academy of Sciences to point out how idiotic the ruling was, but would you believe that the same thing is being reenacted in Idaho’s Snake River Basin thanks to a lone federal judge who has decided that salmon need the water more than the farmers. You can thank some zealous environmental organizations for this kind of calamity because, in the end, they care far less about farmers than fish.

The dairy industry has been subject to the weirdness afflicting others producing food. As Lynne Finnerty of the American Farm Bureau’s news service points out, “While the price of most things has gone up, the price of milk has come down. The average price of a gallon of milk is $3 today. It was $1.03 in 1967, but that’s $6.24 in today’s dollars. The price was 36 cents a gallon in 1915, or $7.22 in 2006 dollars.” That’s the kind of arithmetic that puts dairymen out of business.

Finnerty notes that, “The number of farms has shrunk dramatically. There were 6.5 million farms in 1915. Today, we’re down to 2.1 million.” As the farmer’s share of each dollar spent for food continues to shrink, the cost of producing it increases. This is happening despite larger-scale farming and modern agricultural equipment, as well as the introduction of hybrid seeds and biotechnology. Today’s shrinking farm population produces more food on fewer farms today than in 1915.

And who has been the most vocal foe of biotechnology? The environmentalists. Despite or maybe because of the Earth’s huge human population, everywhere biotechnology with its genetically modified crops has promised to feed the billions who share the Earth, the environmentalists have fought the introduction of this innovation.

Finally, this is happening as the push is on to turn a food product, corn, into a gas additive in the form of ethanol. The U.S. could have more oil if it would just permit producers to get at it, but the new fad of biofuels is going to drive up the cost of corn-based food products.

It is another “perfect storm” as more American farmers face the decision to quit farming and more Americans become dependent on imported foods. When they are gone, the sons and daughters of the shrinking farm population will not want to replace them, even as food prices begin to soar.

In a nation that has plenty of native timberland, we are importing timber. In a nation with hundreds of years of coal reserves, we are making it nearly impossible to build coal-fired utilities to provide for our growing need for electricity. In a nation where ample reserves of oil and natural gas exist, we will be importing more and more of it.

And sometime in 2007, more American dollars will go overseas than the U.S. government collects to meet our national security and other needs.

Does any of this make any sense to you? It doesn’t to me.

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Mr. Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs," posted on the Internet site of the National Anxiety Center.

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