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Tom, one fat kid to another, let's talk

Dear Mr. Secretary:

May I call you Tom? After all, what I'm about to say is kind of personal in nature.

Let's face it. You and I admit we both grew up as fat kids in the big city, you in Pittsburgh, me in Denver. You probably got bullied in Catholic school like I did.

I guess it was your dad that put that picture of the fat kid with the beanie propeller cap on the refrigerator door to keep you from opening it. I can relate. When I was young, my dad always used to sing the old Bob Wills tune Roly Poly whenever I walked in a room.

Certainly, we have our lifelong struggles with our weight. Yet, unlike you, I find no correlation between current U.S. farm policy and either our weight problems or the weight problems of Americans. And that line about pitting 30 million poor children versus 90,000 farmers--not good.

If anyone's to blame for our own problems, it sure isn't the American farmer. I bet you that, like my mom was, your mom was a great cook.

You couldn't deny yourself all she dished out. She likely loved preparing meals for her husband and kids. We probably ate in equal measure to our mom's great cooking as a way to please her in return.

Now, we both suffer for it.

We can maybe blame our mom's cooking. We ought to blame our own selves for loving to eat, but to blame the farmer with this ridiculous assumption that they're responsible for obesity in the U.S. and then tie it to a budget slashing direct payments is, well, just plain nuts.

You are no doubt a smart man, so you don't need to be schooled by the likes of me on the vagaries of farming. Certainly, living in Iowa as you have since you moved to your wife's hometown has been a good lesson in agriculture, just as coming back to where my parents grew up continues to teach me about rural living.

I will offer a couple of reminders, however, that I've picked up over the years, primarily at the feet of one of our nation's best scholars on ag policy, Dr. Barry Flinchbaugh. Like you, he's a native of the Keystone State. Like me, he's chosen to live in Kansas, so he should be a good hybrid idea man on the subject.

Dr. Barry, as I call him, has taught me a lot over the years. He says the one thing that separates production agriculture from any other enterprise is its high degree of risk. I see that risk played out every day out here on the High Plains of western Kansas, where we've had so many years of drought.

If not for the direct payment created in the previous farm law, I doubt I'd be writing this column, because so many producers--particularly wheat growers--would no longer be in business.

It is this direct payment, coupled with a good crop insurance program, that has kept and will keep producers in business to do the Lord's work of feeding the planet. It also works, as Dr. Barry and the government's own Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri will tell you, to create an adequate farm safety net with a minimum amount of market (including trade) distortion.

The $500,000 gross sales limit does not equate with any measure of profit. Even Ken Cook at the Environmental Working Group, the gang that published the farm payment database, will tell you that gross sales and gross payments don't give an adequate picture of the risk producers take.

Let's add in the escalating costs of equipment, fertilizer, seed, crop protection products, transportation, labor and many other things and that big number can drop to some serious middle class numbers right away.

Then you have to add in things like health insurance, which causes many farm spouses to seek off-farm employment simply for any accompanying benefits the job carries with it.

At last count, the average U.S. producer, the kind you want to cut payments to, feeds about 150 people. Do the math. That's 13.5 million people. Cut them off and you'll have a lot more hungry people. I don't think President Obama wants to deal with food riots in this country.

Already, good Democrats, like Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, have said this part of the budget package President Obama has presented isn't going to happen on their watch. Even the National Farmers Union isn't thrilled with this idea.

That means someone in the administration messed up in thinking they could gut the plan that makes good food like whole grains inexpensive to consumers.

Pitting farmers and nutrition folks against each other also is killing the entente created nearly two generations ago by politically diverse statesmen like George McGovern and Bob Dole that brought production agriculture interests together with nutrition interests to create a food program that made farmers strong and helped the truly needy obtain good food.

So, Tom, I've spoken my peace. Care to talk more? Call me. Let's get together. Tell you what. I'll bring the Diet Dr. Pepper. No reason two old fat boys can't enjoy themselves while we reason things out.

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by e-mail at ldreiling@aol.com.

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