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Can you hear me now?

Effective communication is the foundation of any successful relationship. It begins with the ability to listen, a wise person once told me.

Or maybe I read it somewhere because lately I’ve had a difficult time hearing. I’m not referring to selective hearing, the condition that occurs in many marriages but afflicts mainly a male who has a problem tuning into the frequency of his wife’s conversation.

My wife, Sherry, will testify I have had the condition for years.

A typical exchange might go like this.

Sherry – “Did you put gas into the mower? I need to mow today.”

Me – “Nope; I didn’t know it needed it.”

Sherry – “I told you that this morning at breakfast. Didn’t you hear me?”

Me – “Nope.”

In my feeble self-defense, sometimes those exchanges occur while she’s walking away from me heading into another room. I’m engrossed in something important like studying the overnight sports scores on my phone — and my response is “uh-huh.”

But since this past year when I was diagnosed with vertigo and then with Lyme disease, I have noticed a marked decrease in my hearing. The dizzy spells have thankfully diminished — that hollow sound you just heard is me knocking on my hollow wooden head — but I often have ringing in my left ear.

So this past fall I went to an audiologist to test my hearing and my ability to recognize words. I then went to an ear, nose and throat specialist to hear the diagnosis.

“Mr. Hardie, it appears by these results and your previous dizzy spells that you may have manure’s disease,” I thought I heard him say.

“Doesn’t surprise me,” I said. “Growing up on a farm and still mucking out sheds, I’m always spreading manure — even when I’m not talking. People always tell me I’m full of it.”

“No,” he said. “I said you may have Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear.”

Actually, I heard him the first time. Ménière’s disease — pronounced “men-yeers” — is named after the French doctor who first wrote about the symptoms in 1861. It’s a disorder of the inner ear that causes vertigo, tinnitus or ringing in the ear, hearing loss, and a feeling of fullness or congestion in the ear.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders states it can develop at any age, but usually happens to adults between 40 and 60 years old. There are about 615,000 people in the United States with the diagnosis; I’m one of the 45,500 new cases diagnosed each year. The symptoms are caused by a building of fluid in the compartments of the inner ear, called the labyrinth. That’s where the organs of balance and hearing reside, because they can’t find their way out.

There’s no definitive answer to what causes Ménière’s but it can be linked to viral infections such as Lyme, allergies or autoimmune reactions. In my case I had vertigo first and then Lyme, but it’s possible I was already carrying the Lyme virus and it flared during the summer.

Because there’s no definitive test for Ménière’s and the diagnosis is based upon symptoms, I recently went back for a three-month hearing checkup. The hearing in my right year is normal for a 57-year-old who never used hearing protection while operating lots of loud machinery on the farm for many years — and then listened to Led Zeppelin at pounding levels in his car. My right ear starts to be abnormal at higher frequency sounds — more than 2,000 hertz.

But my left ear ranges from severe loss of hearing at both low and high frequencies, and is still abnormal throughout the mid-range tones. The average woman’s vocal tone is 165 to 255 hertz, which is where my left ear hears the worst. My ability to hear and interpret words in my left ear has decreased from 88 percent in September to 70 percent in December.

What’s worse is that ability was measured at 85 decibels and normal conversation is about 60. Noise at more than 70 decibels for a prolonged period can damage a person’s hearing.

Yes, I am 100 percent absolutely guilty of being tone-deaf to my wife’s lovely voice when it comes to my left ear — unless she’s shouting in my ear. Put me in a noisy room and I often just need to nod or shake my head because I can’t make out the conversations.

There is no cure for Ménière’s, but hearing aids are a possibility, and there are other procedures that may take the pressure off my ear. I’m a little worried they won’t find much else inside my head.

So we’ve learned to make adjustments. We now sit side-by-side more often — with Sherry on the right side, of course. I’ve also made handy use of the closed-captioning service on the TV and use earphones while I’m on interactive video chats.

Maybe I’ll find an antique ear trumpet. Better yet I can probably make one myself with old tin and some twine.

But in the end it all starts where it began.

I need to do a better job of listening.

Chris Hardie spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He is a former president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Contact him at chardie1963@gmail.com.

This should be obvious; it's not 2009

While 2021 is not 2009, it’s easy to see how some Americans — and, in fact, many farmers and ranchers — might get confused.

After all, a quick look around Washington, D.C. late this Jan. 20 will reveal several similarities to the same day 12 years earlier: Joe Biden is in the White House, Nancy Pelosi reigns as Speaker of the U.S. House, the Democrats run the Senate, and Tom Vilsack awaits confirmation to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Other ag similarities ended 11 days earlier when three of the four principle writers of several past Farm Bills departed Congress. Two, Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Republican Mike Conaway of Texas, have been on the House Ag Committee all or most of this century and, since 2015, each has served as its chair.

The third departing member, Sen. Pat Roberts from Kansas, is the only person to ever chair both the Senate and House Ag committees.

Between the three — Roberts and Conaway retired; Peterson was retired by the voters — Congress lost a collective 85 years of Farm Bill-writing experience and farm policy memory.

Fear not, however; change is not just around the corner because a.) faces change in Congress, Congress itself rarely changes and b.) both parties have so many new (but not young) bulls ready to replace the old bulls that it’s doubtful most farmers and ranchers will notice any switch.

On the House side, Democrat David Scott, reelected to his 11th term from suburban Atlanta in November, is the first Black member to chair the Ag Committee. His Republican counterpart, Ranking Member Glenn Thompson, PA, came to Congress in 2008.

Neither old pro is known for making waves — departing from conventional Big Ag policies — and both won wide praise from agbiz advocacy groups like the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Corn Growers after claiming their committee posts.

The leadership of the Senate Ag Committee, because of the Democratic doubleheader sweep in Georgia Jan. 5, swings to Michigander Debbie Stabenow, a long-time Democratic member who played a key role in stitching together the years-overdue 2018 Farm Bill.

Republican John Boozman from Arkansas will serve as ranking Republican despite the 50/50 Dem-Repub Senate split. Interestingly, Boozman came to the Senate after trouncing Blanche Lincoln, the only other woman to serve as Ag Committee chair, in 2010.

All this matters because everyone — especially those on Capitol Hill — knows the Donald Trump-Sonny Perdue Gravy Train, that has delivered an astonishing $130 billion in federal subsidies in just four years to American farmers and ranchers, is out of steam.

Still in play, however, are the conditions that fueled it: a 19th century, tariff-based trade policy; a crop insurance-centered farm program that stokes low prices; an anything-goes, rancid meatpacking sector; soil and water conservation programs that are an embarrassment to the word “conservation;” and an anti-science approach to climate change.

That list of failures also serves as a to-do list for the new ag leaders now, two years before the next Farm Bill is due.

In fact, the new leaders, despite their loyalty to the old chairmen and old programs, should use the coming year to examine new ways — carbon payments, meatpacker antitrust, science-based conservation rules, community-driven hunger programs, and other ideas — to shore up U.S. ag’s weakening economic and agronomic walls.

And, no, any new program doesn’t need to replace Big Ag’s worn-out, costly, and largely ineffective “cheap food” farm policies.

New ones should be given space, however, to rise alongside the old to revitalize the weakening rural economy through regenerative, sustainable food production rather than fund a deepening dependency on unsustainable, ad hoc farm subsidies that mostly spur overproduction and end up elsewhere.

New leadership, after all, implies new ideas, new directions, and new choices. Besides, it’s a new year and it’s not 2009.

The Farm and Food File is published weekly throughout the U.S. and Canada. Past columns, events and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.

© 2021 ag comm

2021 promises better days ahead, thanks to the successes of 2020

A new year brings new hope, and there are plenty of reasons for hope in dairy as 2021 begins.

The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines promises an eventual return to more-normal patterns of life — and less volatility in markets — at some point this year.

A new Congress and administration will provide opportunities to address important concerns — and dairy, with its proud tradition of bipartisanship, is uniquely positioned to seize those opportunities even in a divided government.

And dairy’s 2020 track record of accomplishment — led by the advocacy of the cooperative community from the beginning of the coronavirus crisis last March to the latest federal assistance package signed into law in late December — provides a formidable foundation to build from as we stay true to our mission of serving our members during the challenging, though in the end brighter, year ahead.

About those accomplishments. There hasn’t been much time to pause and reflect on how profoundly dairy rose to the occasion in 2020 — not in a 24/7, 365-day-a-year industry that never stops producing products and serving consumers. This crisis has evolved too quickly, and the needs have been too ever-changing and acute, for anyone to truly rest. But the gains that our members, and everyone in dairy, have made through tireless advocacy have been substantial. The COVID stimulus bill approved in December alone included:

• $400 million for a new NMPF-backed Dairy Donation Program open to all producers to help dairy stakeholders and non-profits work together to provide dairy products to food-insecure households and minimize food waste.

• Provisions enabling USDA to provide additional compensation to producers who earlier were unable to receive the full support they needed under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which had payment limitations that didn’t fully address the extent of the damages incurred on many dairy farms.

• Supplemental Dairy Margin Coverage payments for farms whose DMC production history has increased since 2014, up to 5 million pounds. The provision is a boon for smaller operations and increases farm bill baseline spending for all dairy farmers through 2023, the life of the current law.

• Improvements that will make the Paycheck Protection Program work better for sole proprietor, independent contractor, and self-employed dairy farmers by allowing them to use their 2019 gross income to determine their PPP loan amounts.

And of course, dairy farmers will be eligible for support in the $11 billion agricultural disaster assistance package, of which at least $1.5 billion is already being targeted to additional product purchases for distribution to food insecure individuals, included in the legislation Congress has passed.

It’s important to note that the stimulus bill was only the most recent in a string of policy successes that together have generated well over $5 billion in assistance to dairy producers and helped stabilize markets. It’s also important to remember that each success builds upon earlier ones.

For example, the progress on payment limits built on the earlier victory of getting dairy farmers more equitable treatment in payments made under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program than they had received in earlier programs, like the trade-mitigation payments.

Now, CFAP itself has been improved upon. And the supplemental DMC payments will set the stage to remedy a niggling flaw in the DMC’s coverage, that of an out-of-date production history that does not reflect farmers’ current situations. But the DMC was itself a major improvement on the old Margin Protection Program. And now participation in DMC will be even more fruitful for many producers.

Such gains only come from credibility, persistence, tireless effort and the patient building of relationships with key officials on Capitol Hill and in the administration. It’s the kind of work NMPF has prided itself on, day-in and day-out, throughout its existence — and it’s the dedication that shines through during times of critical need, like what we’ve seen in these past few months.

The year’s successes extend beyond legislation as well. Gains in trade policy helped enable a year of progress for U.S. exports, which data indicates may end up being a record year for the total volume of milk solids exported. Our FARM Program continues to lead in industry best practices. Our successful advocacy in regulatory issues has aided our farmers in the eternal struggle against red tape. And we’ve effectively communicated dairy’s story, to farmers and to the world, letting everyone know that this sector is essential, and resilient, and well-positioned to thrive.

The lessons learned in 2020 both prepare us, and brace us, for the days ahead. With normal times not yet here, 2021 certainly won’t be easy. The economy will remain touch-and-go. Partisanship may intensify. Longstanding issues like agricultural labor will remain difficult to resolve, and rising issues such as climate change will pose additional challenges.

But we’re energized by the challenge of serving our members even more effectively. We know we can do it, because we’ve seen the dairy community rise to meet its challenges throughout this past year. And together, we will create better days to come.

Jim Mulhern is president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation.