(Posted Tue. Feb 14th, 2012)
Feb. 14: From NCGA’s earliest days, long before issues like ethanol or biotechnology arose, farm policy has been at the top of the association’s priority list.
Farm policy was a “natural” for organization founder Walter Goeppinger, who made a point of working with presidents and congressional leaders of both parties on behalf of corn growers. His close relations in government and his stature as a spokesman for growers established an NCGA tradition of initiative and effectiveness in farm policy debates.
That tradition has continued with each farm bill since Goeppinger’s day and spread into additional issues as U.S. farm policy evolved.
In 1965, NCGA went to Congress backing a new concept: a four-year extension of the farm bill’s feed grain section to eliminate the need to revisit it annually. That ushered in the modern pattern of farm bill consideration and renewal.
NCGA and Goeppinger were also leaders in developing coalitions to back farm policy, bringing together some 500 people from 32 groups to strategize for the 1970 farm bill.
By 1982, NCGA had gained such stature in the policy world that President Ronald Reagan came to Des Moines to keynote the association’s annual meeting.
Varel Bailey, another NCGA president, remembers the role corn growers played in hammering out details of the 1985 farm bill at a meeting with Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, then chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee:
“We went over the fact that the bill made major changes but no one had put the pieces together to make them work. Senator Dole turned to Gordley [his chief of staff] and said, ‘You guys work it out and tell me what you decide.’ I thought Gordley would go to the committee staff to work out the details, but instead he told Mike Hall [NCGA’s lobbyist] and me to meet him at the Monocle Restaurant in an hour.
“At the restaurant, he had rounded up the lobbyist for the wheat growers to join us, and we started going over the farm bill – no set-aside, a new Conservation Reserve Program, set target prices and loan rates, and a marketing loan using some left-over pieces of the PIK program.
“It was like trying to put a puzzle together where the size of each piece is determined by the size of the other pieces. Finally, I excused myself and called FAPRI and told Abner Womack we needed help deciding the size of the CRP, target prices, loan rates, and estimates of net farm income. We did some figuring on what the optimum relationships should be, and I went back to the table and announced that the CRP should be 42 million acres and the corresponding loan rates and target prices, and Gordley said, ‘We are going with these numbers.’”
Farm bill after farm bill, NCGA’s effectiveness has rested on the bedrock of grower involvement. That was evident a decade later, when Freedom to Farm was the hot, new farm bill topic.
“You talk about getting calls,” says Ryland Utlaut, who chaired NCGA’s policy committee at the time. “I got calls from all over the U.S. There was a national debate and we were looking at a radical change.”
“It was a very, very vigorous debate within NCGA about our position, about what direction NCGA should go,” Dee Vaughan remembers. “Some states wanted to increase the loan rate and some wanted to go with [Senator Pat] Roberts’ new structure, but in the end we agreed to support the new farm program.”
In 2007, corn growers went beyond influencing farm policy to originating the one major new concept in the farm bill: ACRE, the Average Crop Revenue Election program.
“There’s been an evolution since 1993 of how crop insurance has changed from direct payments to risk management, and that is still going on,” says Ron Litterer, NCGA’s 2007 president. “What led to that was the farm bill study team that Iowa Corn Growers started with all the commodities and Farm Bureau.”
Early in the farm bill renewal process, NCGA was the only commodity group pushing ACRE.
“ACRE says that direct payments are not that important,” he remembers. “Farmers are pretty conservative, so in the whole evolution of crop insurance and revenue insurance, there have been regional and crop differences.”
Still, “on farm bill, corn was the driver,” he says. “Keith Sexton and I met with the Iowa Farm Bureau after [Iowa State professor] Dermot Hayes told them, ‘you need to listen to these guys.’
“We had to compromise to get a foothold in the debate, and by doing that, we broadened our base of support. Because we were able to give on direct payments and move from a county to a state-wide trigger on price, it meant the coverage pretty much worked better for high risk situations.”
Like so many NCGA leaders, Litterer continues to look forward more than back. “ACRE gave us a political chance to work with the National Farmers Union’s SURE program. SURE has no baseline but ACRE does. It should be possible to mold those two into one simplified program.
NCGA Vice President Pam Johnson is also looking forward to the next farm program battle: “I think the biggest challenge/opportunity will be developing policy at a time when no extra federal dollars are available. So coming to the table with a clear priority about what corn growers need will be the challenge for NCGA.
“We will have to ask ourselves the hard questions, ‘What does our federal government need to invest in agriculture? How important is it that we have food and energy security?’
“At the last Commodity Classic, we said agriculture has already looked at reform, and we’re willing to make changes, but let’s make sure everyone is there with the same attitude,” she says.
“The thing that is important for the next few years is to remember that high crop prices are short-term. We need to make long-term decisions that are wise, and we need to remember that agriculture is the backbone of our country.”