Trust that it’s OK for farmers to dissent

View from Rural Route 8

By Jim Suber

Trust is a two-way street, an idea that U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack seems not to grasp very well.

As reported earlier here, the administration’s chosen one to run the USDA employed the attack style and tone of speech that has come to mark this regime by belittling and then lecturing those who would question or challenge it because they simply disagree in principle or substance.

Vilsack’s famous talk was last month in a forum sponsored by a farm magazine.

Vilsack is often defended, as in a recent essay by Daryll Ray and Harwood Schaffer, two University of Tennessee agricultural policy experts.

The pair first picked up on Vilsack’s message that farmers and ranchers must be “strategic about the fights we pick, because the fights we often pick are misinterpreted in some corners.” I say too bad; keep fighting.

Vilsack had praised the chicken industry for deciding to negotiate with activists groups who have been conducting referenda in numerous states to force the industry to change drastically the conditions in which layers and broilers are raised.

The chicken industry was roundly criticized by others in agriculture for caving to demands by the enemy, fearing any concessions would embolden the activists who would then attack other livestock enterprises such as hogs and cattle feeding.

Then he criticized farm interests for continuing to raise heck about the EPA’s recent attempt to control dust from farms and ranches and about the Department of Labor’s attempt to reduce child labor on farms owned by their parents.

This is where the trust issue comes in. He said about the dust dustup that the rule was not going to happen and never going to happen and that the proposed and despised labor change was dead.

Well, I am here to report as an old-timer who has covered agriculture since 1973 (that’s right at 40 years and a few secretaries of agriculture) that the dust regulations issue has been around for at least 20 years.

And so have many others, like methane from big animals. The first time anyone heard that from Region 7 EPA in a Kansas City meeting, we all just rolled eyes and laughed weakly. They moved the methane and the dust to the back burner and there they sat until just a few years ago when Vilsack’s EPA counterpart Lisa Jackson trotted dust back out.

Methane reduction is still a favorite with the anti-beef activists who want the national herd eliminated, ostensibly to reduce air pollution.

The point is: federal regulators never really kill any measure they ever propose; they always wind up trotting out old bad ideas to try them again on new populaces. Mark my words.

They did the same thing with water. Years ago the EPA with its Clean Water Act decided it controlled every drop of rain, snow, sleet, hail and fog that fell. More importantly, it thought it should control every place it landed, which is about everywhere when you think about it.

We thought we beat that back, but it is now before us again. Great stewards of the land and pastures were and are deeply offended, and they originally protested en masse, a great voice of grassroots dissent.

That last word is one that offends this administration, which purports to represent all of the downtrodden minority groups but those they perceive as their enemies, usually independent white businessmen who either manufacture or produce goods, foods or services.

The overriding arrogant attitude constantly displayed for four years seems to be: “Look, shut up and trust us. No talking back. We know better than you ever could what’s good for all of us.”

Instead of rushing to the defense of the acute minority of farm and ranch owner-operators, they try to stifle honest dissent, which by the way, won American independence from Britain, freed the slaves during the Civil War, later granted equal rights to women and again to disenfranchised black African Americans, and allowed labor to organize and finally established equal protection for all under the law.

So when a hog farmer in Iowa pipes up and offers to Vilsack a counterpoint, he should be respected and recognized, not trashed and vilified as a trouble-making reactionary who needs to learn to be proactive, which is what Vilsack said farmers must do.

Maybe so, but none of us – whites, blacks, women, laborers – would have gotten to where we are without being sassy, defiant and serious about what we believed in like individual freedoms, equal standings and dignity.

Call me, Vilsack. I’ll let you know I am proactive for our original freedoms, and inform you that you work for all Americans, not just a political party.

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