Americans vote in a general election Tuesday, and barring a last-minute scandal or some other such calamity, they’ll make Illinois Senator Barack Obama their 44th president.
And that means American agriculture is in for one of the biggest showdowns it’s ever seen.
Obama is convinced U.S. farming has become too corporate, governed by big business. So, he's borrowed family-farm activist Willie Nelson’s guide to rural America's survival, and called it his own. Nelson, founder of Farm Aid benefit concerts, has long been an enemy of Big Agriculture, which he says puts family farms out of business. Obama's joined this small-farm crusade, promoting green energy (like Nelson, who even has his own brand of premium biodiesel, called BioWillie) and being a David to the farm sector's Goliaths.
Obama wants to ensure that if American agriculture grows, it won’t be because of excessive government payments that potentially make big farms even bigger. These payments have given the U.S. a black eye internationally. Billions of dollars of public money is regularly doled out to U.S. farmers to help them stay afloat. As a result, U.S. farmers can sell their harvests internationally for artificially low prices. And because Americans are the world's biggest commodity exporters, everyone else has to follow the price down too, to compete.
Such payments are popularly blamed for agriculture’s chronic multi-decade depression, which just started to ease over the past year or so when biofuels sparked renewed interest in common crops such as corn and wheat.
But Obama thinks there’s too much of a connection between flagging small farms and powerful U.S. agribusiness, which typically supports Republican values. He believes corporate seed, feed and agri-chemical giants such as Archer Daniels Midland, a regular target of his vile (and ironically, headquartered in his home state), benefit unjustly from federal money meant for farmers. The evil empire is in bed with sprawling megafarms, he says, which are much more likely to have corporate ownership than small farms.
So Obama has a risky plan. He’s going to cap single farm subsidy payments to $250,000 per farm, regardless of their size. He says a ceiling is required on those subsidies "so that we don't have continued concentration of agriculture in the hands of a few large agribusiness interests.” Besides keeping farms relatively small, Obama says this move will save the federal treasury $1 billion over 10 years.
He’ll take this booty, along with another $300 million a year, and plow it into what he calls “renewable energy advancements.” That means wind power, biodiesel and ethanol production, carried out in rural America by good old farmers.
Another part of his plan calls for increased funding to help farmers comply with a national organic certification program. It can take several years for conventionally tilled land to be rid of commercially produced fertilizers, for example, during which time farmers get no income from it. Enter Obama, chequebook open.
And finally, he wants to police feedlots — "concentrated animal feeding operations," as he calls them — which produce 40 per cent of all U.S. livestock. He’ll dispatch the Environmental Protection Agency to limit the nitrogen, phosphorus, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia they produce.
Canadian farmers should beware. If Obama levels this manifesto on homegrown farmers, he’ll surely impose it on imports, too. In fact, the U.S. farm lobby will demand her do so, in exchange for any modicum of support, and then use it as a non-tariff barrier to reduce competition. Obama, who is cool on free trade to begin with, will go along, under the guise of fairness and environmentalism.
This won’t happen for a while. There’ll be so much infighting in U.S. farm circles that they’ll forget about Canada and everyone else momentarily.
But let’s not have a false sense of security. On the farm and elsewhere, things are going to change.