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No matter what the sport, referees struggle to get their due. In farming, no matter what they raise, farmers often find themselves just outside the spotlight. Interestingly, the two occupations have something in common: the importance of their presence and their relevance.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke at the recent American Farm Bureau Annual Meeting and once again shared his view that agriculture's influence is waning. He cited the need to rebuild political capacity and used Congress' failure to pass a five-year farm bill as an example. Vilsack made his case that farmers and ranchers should support cabinet nominees who exhibit an interest in things such as bio-fuels and tax credits. Those in attendance learned "constructive engagement" is needed to address philosophical disagreements with organizations ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Humane Society of the United States.

The secretary missed the mark on several counts. In 2012, there was broad support for the "farm" part of the farm bill, but election year politics and disagreements over food stamp cuts slowed the process. The next chance for passage was the lame-duck session, which was dominated by fiscal cliff negotiations that went down to the wire. The vice president and Senate minority leader did see fit to extend the farm bill for nine months as part of the overall fiscal deal. On a side note, the argument can be made victims of Hurricane Sandy exhibited similar political weakness when a vote on their disaster assistance bill was postponed for weeks--the message being virtually no bill sails through Congress.

According to Vilsack, constructive engagement led to agriculture epiphanies by EPA administrators. Yet the secretary failed to mention constructive engagement didn't keep EPA from considering ridiculous regulations on farm dust, or why it didn't prevent the Department of Labor from proposing misguided farm labor regulations that went so far as to impact kids' FFA projects. In both cases, further regulatory action was stopped, but only after widespread opposition surfaced from the agriculture community and Congress. Even if constructive engagement proves useful with cabinet officials, it does little to protect agriculture from the countless bureaucrats who develop and implement the regulations themselves.

It's true; the population of much of rural America has fallen and with it political representation in Congress. Maps clearly illustrate the divide between blue and red states. Vilsack pointed out that one in every 12 jobs is tied to agriculture; the flip side is that 11 are not. If we make this a numbers game, agriculture loses every time.

Farmers and ranchers should always be looking to develop new alliances and can't expect good things to happen if they sit on the sidelines. But caution should be exercised when announcing the demise of agriculture's political clout; much influence still resides at the state level. Many state legislators have close ties to agriculture, and there is a broad understanding of the importance of domestically produced food and fuel. While agriculture may not always be in the driver's seat, we're still pretty effective in stopping ill-advised legislation and regulation. In sports terms, sometimes the best offense is a good defense.

Political influence ebbs and flows and is too often tied to campaign contributions. Those of us involved in agriculture aren't generally tied to a multi-million dollar super PAC, but agriculture's ground game is still a force to be reckoned with. Without agriculture, there wouldn't be a game.

--Dan Cassidy, Fulton, Mo., chief administrative officer for the Missouri Farm Bureau

Date: 3/4/2013



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