It was the late 1990s, and the page roared from the office PA system, jangling the nerves of all who heard it.
I was washing my hands in a work area sink at High Plains Journal when the five bells cascaded over me. The voice following was none too pleasant sounding.
“Larry Dreiling to Editorial. Larry Dreiling to Editorial, please.”
I made my Jackie Gleason style dash back to my desk. There, Associate Editor Holly Martin had the handle of a phone we shared in her hand.
With the eyes of someone who didn’t look like she had wanted to handle any kind of call to me, she uttered the words no farm policy reporter ever wanted to hear.
“God’s calling from Manhattan, and He sure sounds pissed off.”
Nope, you never wanted to make Barry Flinchbaugh angry.
For a good 30 of the 40 years we knew each other, he’d always give me the sass that as a Fort Hays State University alum, I only attended “the second-best ag college in Kansas.”
That kind of talk only strengthened this reporter’s resolve to be as good as anybody K-State ever produced. Barry Flinchbaugh made me a better reporter, and a better person, too.
I thank him for that.
It ended up that we would treat anything I’d write on farm policy as a continuing education examination with him as instructor. There would be frequent calls on what I got right, what I got wrong, how I needed to improve. He’d finish with a grade.
I never got many A grades from him. Lots of B-pluses, but not many A’s.
Then again, he gave a lot of tough love to people who needed it.
It didn’t matter the people he spoke to either. Politicians, bankers, farmers, the media. He gave it to all of us straight, no chaser. If you came up with something he didn’t like, you pretty much got one of two standard responses.
“That’s a bunch of crap,” was selected for those who believed in farm policy contrary to him.
The other was a bit nicer and reserved for those who may not have had the metaphysical certitude of the previous group but were mistaken all the same.
“If you believe in (fill in the mistaken belief here), then you don’t know where little babies come from.”
And that was the beauty of Barry Flinchbaugh: helping us all in the understanding of the single thing that agriculture carries with it perhaps the scariest word in all of business—risk.
How to manage that risk through farm policy was how he taught all of us.
“Remember that farm programs,” he always said, “are created to provide maximum profit to the farmer with a minimum of market distortion.”
That was what Freedom to Farm was really all about, and what the hallmark of his greatest days as an agricultural economist and the highest farm policy guru there was.
I only wish more people had seen Barry Flinchbaugh in his greatest role as master showman of ag policy as the chairman of the Commission on 21st Century Production Agriculture. Imagine a gritty chairman of a Senate committee, mixed in with a bit of P.T. Barnum, Don Rickles, and a touch of Jerry Springer thrown in for good measure.
Those 1996 hearings across the country focused on every crop and every type of producer. With a ready supply of cigars to chew, Flinchbaugh would pound the gavel at exactly the five-minute mark in every speaker’s testimony. At the end of every session, you knew you had learned something new about agriculture in this nation, and how important it was, even to our national defense.
And it didn’t matter if that speaker was the head of a farm organization, a farmer still in his bib overalls, or the secretary of agriculture himself. They all had the same amount of time, and Flinchbaugh made sure you knew you were done.
And now the big farm policy maker in the sky has placed his gavel down on this great man, and I doubt farm policy will ever see his like again. I appreciate every meeting, every chance to learn from Barry Flinchbaugh.
I hope he gives all of us A’s from heaven.
Larry Dreiling can be reached at email@example.com.