Trying to sell Ram trucks, Chrysler made a splash in the Super Bowl this month with a two-minute television spot celebrating the American farmer — a montage of handsome still photos and a vintage Paul Harvey speech all ending with the pitch: “For the farmer in all of us.”
Nine days later, the picture was very different as President Barack Obama skipped over farmers entirely in his State of the Union address, never mentioning the yearlong farm bill stalemate in Congress nor even including “agriculture” among the thousands of words spoken that night.
“It’s obviously not on their radar screen,” said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. “The president and his people I don’t think even get it.”
The White House declined to speak on the record, referring questions to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. A spokesperson for the secretary told POLITICO that he remains convinced Obama truly wants a farm bill notwithstanding his silence. Ag trade groups smoothed over the slight by focusing on the president’s remarks regarding potential markets in Europe.
But the juxtaposition of the Super Bowl ad and State of the Union silence reflects a real disconnect in American politics over farm policy. And one that goes well beyond the president.
Chrysler’s marketers made a business decision to invest millions of dollars to identify with farmers, just as the automaker also aired a second two-minute spot for Jeep — this time celebrating U.S. troops coming home from wars overseas.
“We have used the largest television viewing audience to highlight the pride, the resilience and the determination that form an integral part of the American character,” said Sergio Marchionne, CEO for both Chrysler Group LLC and its principal owner, Fiat S.p.A. An accompanying news release speaks of the troops and farmers as “two groups whose work ethic, dedication and service have sustained the very fabric of this nation.”
Contrast that with Washington where in the middle of the worst drought in a generation, no farm bill was even brought to the floor of the House — an unprecedented delay for which Republicans paid little at the ballot box. Indeed, the year ended with Obama washing his hands of the whole matter and allowing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to pen a nine-month extension that infuriated many dairy farmers and left the two Ag committees out in the cold.
What is it that Chrysler sees that Washington doesn’t? Are these just modern Mad Men selling pickups to suburban men with farm fantasies?
Or is something bigger happening here in power politics? And is there a lesson that farmers themselves must learn from if they are to better market their importance to American consumers — and voters?
“It was a prideful moment out here in Ag country,” said Keith Alverson, a 32-year-old farmer in Lake County, S.D. “But we’re a small percentage of the population, and it’s clear we’re not connecting the way we used to. We have to find new ways.”
“No one is thinking about the promotion of agriculture in a big and bold way,” said one Republican aide who tracks farm issues. “There are numerous newsletters, coalitions, websites but they’re all serving the same audience. They’re essentially all singing to the choir, but no one is bringing any new folks to the church service.”
Politics is certainly part of it. When Iowa was in play in the presidential election, Obama talked a good game on the farm bill last summer. But more than past administrations, this White House has taken a remarkably hands-off approach to farm issues — the chief exception being the first lady’s vegetable garden.
“Between the last two elections, clearly [Obama’s] support out in the countryside was minimal at best and these are folks who are very politically oriented,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). “So why worry about the people who are not part of your base, I guess.”
But Lucas — born into a family that has farmed for generations in Oklahoma — feels the same frustration with his own party leadership.
Boehner, a former member of the Ag panel and strong ally of dairy processors, blocked him from bringing the farm bill to the House floor last year. This week, with across-the-board cuts threatening the entire government on March 1, farm subsidies are back in the news but only as an alternative source of savings, not yet as a five-year bill.
At the House Republican retreat in Virginia, the farm bill was barely discussed. “We did not,” Lucas said. “Other than to mention it would be on the agenda this year.”
In fact, agriculture’s economic success in recent years has worked against the farm bill by sapping any sense of urgency. Net farm income jumped to $118 billion in 2011, dropped back in 2012, but is now predicted to soar to close to $128 billion in 2013.
Crop insurance payments — expected to reach close to $16 billion altogether — have helped offset losses from last summer’s drought. And as land prices rise, older Ag lawmakers complain that younger producers seem to have forgotten hard times and fret more about estate taxes — than the traditional safety net.
Indeed the cost of that safety net — as a percentage of federal spending — has shrunk considerably. The latest Congressional Budget Office estimates peg the 10-year costs at about $158 billion — less than 1 percent of what Washington will spend on other benefit programs.
In this context, Keith Collins, a former chief economist of the Agriculture Department and now an adviser to the crop insurance industry, says the costs are almost the equivalent of paying an “annual premium” on what amounts to food supply insurance for the nation.
“Agriculture has become so efficient, so few people actually raise the food … the American consumer has become almost like high school kids,” Lucas said. “It’s always been there, it will always be there. Dad can I have the keys to the car? Does the car have gas in it? Oh, it will always have gas in it, right Dad?”
The government loosely defines 2.3 million Americans as operating farmers but that is still less than 1 percent of the population. In fact, Vilsack has estimated that about three-quarters of the U.S. production comes from a subset of about 200,000 to 300,000 farmers.
The decline of regional newspapers — which were the heart of the old farm press — contributes to this isolation. Major publications largely ignored the farm bill debate last year, while many of the most experienced Ag reporters have migrated to more niche, subscriber-funded newsletters.
The secretary himself raised warnings in December even as the farm bill was collapsing.
“Far too few of us in this country fully understand agriculture,” Vilsack told the Chamber of Commerce. And in a more publicized speech at a Farm Journal forum, he warned that rural America must develop a “new mind-set” or risk becoming “less and less relevant to the politics of this country.”
“Some people were offended, thought it was too harsh. We didn’t,” said Pam Johnson, an Iowa farmer and president of the National Corn Growers Association. “We saw it as a call to action.”
Now in his 60s, Mike Geske farms with his son an estimated 2,100 acres of corn, soybeans, rice and occasionally cotton in Missouri. If 2011 was a boom year for other farmers, it was one of his toughest, he told POLITICO — a reminder of all the vagaries of agriculture. And as a board member of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, he said he has seen in his own lifetime an ever-wider gap between farmers like his family and the rest of the nation.
“There’s now a whole generation of urban people that has never set foot on a farm.” Geske said. “Our focus is to try to connect with that consumer.”
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