Dec 19, 2012

Small Farmer Commentary

Drought Year Ponderings 

    by Mary Fund

Late one Sunday afternoon in early December, we saw billowing clouds of smoke on the southern horizon of our farm. Given how incredibly dry it has been, we were alarmed, and jumped into the truck to race around the section to see what was going on. Surely no one would be crazy enough to set a fire on purpose.

And yet that is what we found.

The local fire department was burning an 80 acre field of former CRP ground so that the farmer could work the ground yet this fall, and plant it to corn or soybeans next spring.

It was a warm calm day, so there was not much danger of the fire escaping the field, but it still deeply disturbed me.

By all official reports, 2013 will see more of the same here in Kansas as far as drought goes. And yet, farmers are willing to gamble on the likelihood of rain in order to cash in on high grain prices.

Or is it just rain they rely on?

While in the above instance, I do not claim to know the specific farmer’s plan (and he is but one of many doing the same thing).  I am told that crop insurance plays a big role. I’ve heard stories about farmers buying poorer quality land in grass or brush, tearing these out to plant high priced corn or soybeans, and buying federally subsidized crop insurance which guarantees them a payment if they lose that crop due to drought or flood etc.

Sounds like poor public policy to me-- especially in a drought year or cycle. Subsidized crop insurance is intended to protect farmers from routine risks. But instead it appears to be encouraging many to take risks they might not otherwise take-- risks that will expose more than just the individual to loss.

In mid-November, not long before we saw the billowing smoke, Ken Burn’s documentary “The Dust Bowl” was aired on PBS. I am amazed at the number of old and young alike who were shocked at how bad the drought was in western and southwest Kansas and throughout the Plains. “We never knew it was so bad!”, they claimed. “So hard on young and old. So totally destructive! It can’t happen again, can it?”

While the topic of another Dust Bowl happening is fodder for a future article, I fear that the actions of those who tear out grassland to plant crops for short term profit reflects that same lack of historical memory. “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.”

My father was a storyteller. So while growing up, I heard lots about the Dirty Thirties and the Depression and yes, the drought. When my son was home from college over Thanksgiving, he unearthed a copy of an interview he’d done for high school with his Grandmother about the Dust Bowl. Ken Burns documentary- impressive. Personal interview- priceless.

This holiday season as families, friends and neighbors gather, take the opportunity to ask about the Dust Bowl. Ask your grandparents, older aunts and uncles, and older neighbors about the 1930’s and what they experienced. Learn from history.

And, oh yes, talk to your Congressman about conservation compliance for subsidized crop insurance, and putting caps on those insurance subsidies.
(Mary Fund, editor of Rural Papers, farms with her husband in Nemaha County.) 

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