Friday, August 24, 2007

Obama Has Ear to the Ground in Developing Rural Policy

Presidential candidate Barack Obama is taking his sweet time as he develops a set of policies for rural America.
That's because the U.S. senator from Illinois is making time to listen to rural residents and agricultural experts instead of Washington lobbyists, says Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor.

As Obama pursues the Democratic nomination for president, he and his campaign staff will continue collecting the ideas of rural Americans "to ensure that our campaign is listening to people's opinions before offering policy proposals," Vietor said. "After all, the last thing we need is another plan written by and for Washington that doesn't do enough to address the real issues Iowans confront in their daily lives."
One such venue was Obama's "rural summit" held last week in Tama, where approximately 350 people participated in breakout sessions on major issues facing rural America. At the end of each session, policy recommendations were presented to Obama by the group.

There was also an online component to the summit, where anyone could voice opinions and submit questions.

Vietor said that Obama will review all of the recommendations then release a rural plan this fall.

Obama has assembled a team of agriculture and rural economic development experts to help craft his rural policies. One is Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University. In an interview with Iowa Independent, Hamilton said that the Tama summit was successful as a forum for collecting the opinions and concerns of rural residents.

"There were three different sessions at the summit, one on energy, one on rural development and quality of life, and one on agriculture," said Hamilton, pictured at right. "I sat in on the agricultural session and there was a lot of discussion on farm programs and farm program reform. There was discussion about issues of creating opportunity for beginning farmers, about what we can do to help support farmers with prices in the marketplace, and there was discussion about competition issues. We went through an exercise in which we had small groups that identified their top four or five ideas and then we put those on the board. The major issue that was discussed was related to farm programs and payment reform."

Hamilton said that improving conservation programs and strengthening enforcement of competition provisions in agriculture law were also hot topics at the summit.
Many of the topics that will become part of Obama's rural policy are being debated for the 2007 Farm Bill. Some may even be passed into law before the presidential election. But, as Hamilton observed, there's more to it than just getting initiatives passed in the farm bill. "Certainly the 2002 farm bill shows us, it's not what you get passed in the bill, but it's how it's actually implemented by the administration," Hamilton said. "From the position of being the president, Sen. Obama's hope is that if he's elected president he'll be able to put the people in place in the administration to actually implement the bill."

Hamilton recalled being with Sen. Tom Harkin "in a meeting a year and a half ago and we were talking about the 2007 farm bill and what ought to be in it, and his comment was: 'A good starting point would be to actually implement the things that passed in 2002 that we've never actually done yet.' And that's still true to some extent. A number of the ideas that are going to be key in the 2007 bill are not new ideas. They're things that people have been working on that haven't actually been implemented or adequately funded yet," said Hamilton.

Another of Obama's advisers is Gary Lamb (pictured below), a farmer from Chelsea who has long been an active advocate for agriculture.

"For about the last four presidential elections, I've been trying to meet with presidential candidates and encourage them to really take a serious look at the negative impact that's taking place out here in rural America," said Lamb. "Not just farmers leaving the land, but in all the communities, the businesses that are leaving. The institutions, the schools, small rural hospitals, fire departments, EMTs -- they're struggling to maintain their viability because they lack one vital resource: people. So I hadn't had too much luck in trying to encourage these presidential candidates to have a dialog, bring in some of the most knowledgeable, respected people and try to determine what we need to change in public policy for agriculture and rural America."

But Lamb said that Obama's approach has been quite different from most presidential candidates of today and in the past. "Most of them, it kinda goes in one ear and out the other. And I don't mind saying I was pleasantly surprised when Obama's rural outreach director called me and wanted to come up and talk to me. My first response was, well, just another presidential campaign that wants to pretend they're concerned about agriculture and rural America. You know, I've traveled and visited with lots of presidential candidates, and for the most part, their thoughts are focused on other questions. I've been trying to get presidential candidates to do something like this for the last four presidential elections. I've been to hundreds of meetings all across the country over the years, and I was impressed with the knowledge and experience and the concern of the people that participated in the summit in Tama."

Lamb is a veteran in the fight to improve policies affecting rural America. During his life he has made an unsuccessful run for Congress, worked as an agriculture liaison for Iowa Sen. Harkin, and served as president of the Iowa Farmers Union. "I became aware of influences in farm policy back in the early '80s, and I got involved because I began to recognize that public policy of any kind, including farm policy, doesn't set to right itself. Somebody or something influences it."
He wants to remind everyone about the farm crisis of the 1980s, and how we must all work to make sure that situation doesn't arise again. "I was convinced in the early '80s that we were headed for a train wreck. Our land was inflating in value and all of the so-called experts were telling us it was the 'Golden Era of Agriculture;' we were getting rich in our sleep because our rent was inflating. I began to stand up and publicly question this and asking what would happen if land values went down," said Lamb.

"I was told at that time by the president of the largest farm organization in our country, and I won't mention any names, but I asked him what would happen if land values went down. His response was, 'We don't need pessimists and negative thinkers in today's agriculture.' Well, my worst fear became reality a year or so later. Land values went down 60 percent and we were reminded rather painfully that agriculture is about much more than the farms that dot our countryside. We lost thousands of small businesses. The point I'm making is, this is more than just farmers and agriculture. The farm crisis rippled way beyond the farm gates."

Lamb said that reforming farm programs will be an important step to strengthen small family farms rather than large agribusinesses to ensure that such a crisis does not happen again. Farm payment limitations were the major issue discussed at the summit, he said. "We need some kind of reasonable payment limitations put on this thing. The House farm bill really didn't do that. When you have an atmosphere out there where 10 percent of the farmers get about 70 or 75 percent of the total subsidies, it's just a vicious cycle. They use those big subsidies to get even bigger and squeeze out the young farmer or small farmer."
"Now the argument has been made that rice and cotton farmers down South are opposed to payment limitations," said Lamb. "Now that's not exactly true. I've met with a lot of people from rice and cotton country, and they see a lot of the same thing that we see happening up here. And I'm fairly well convinced that if the formula for payment limitations would take into account the higher input costs for rice and cotton, they would support that. And of course there's entities out there like Riceland Foods in Arkansas that got $15.8 million in subsidies. They wouldn't be for that I suppose, but I'm convinced that the average rice and cotton farmer, if we were to give them a little higher payment limitation for the higher input cost, they would support it."

Obama has called for significant reforms in farm program payments. He has called for a cap of $250,000 as a payment limitation, and has worked for competition reforms in agriculture. The next step for the campaign will be to continue collecting the opinions of rural residents before finalizing a rural policy that will be released early this fall.

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