Photos from the aftermath of a recent massive storm that flattened cornfields across Iowa and into Illinois and Indiana took me back 22 years.
The Aug. 10 storm damaged grain bins as straight-line winds of as much as 100 miles per hour cut a swath through farm country. The storm impacted about 38 million acres of farmland — including 14 million acres in Iowa, according to the Iowa Soybean Association. An estimated 8.18 million acres of corn and 5.64 million acres of soybeans in Iowa were affected.
That same morning a slightly less-severe storm hit our farm. One tree limb smashed a few of our benches at one of our outdoor wedding sites, narrowly missing an arbor. A few other trees were toppled as was some of our patio furniture. Six plastic lawn chairs were smashed after the wind carried them several-hundred yards.
The derecho that ripped across Iowa reminded me of June 27, 1998, when a line of intense thunderstorms swept in from Minnesota and caused widespread straight-line wind damage to many areas of central and western Wisconsin. The National Weather Service called it one of the worst storms to hit the region in more than 25 years.
There were two main paths of the 1998 storm where winds gusted between 90 and 120 miles per hour. Our farm was on the northern track. I lived in West Salem near La Crosse at the time, but my parents were still milking cows. I was city editor of the La Crosse Tribune and spent that Saturday night on the phone helping to direct our news coverage while keeping an eye on the radar.
The storm took down big maple trees in my parents’ yard but they miraculously missed the house. One of them came straight down on their wellhead, knocking out their water. The power was out for several days. The milking equipment was powered by a generator, which my dad hooked up to a tractor.
The second house on the farm, where we now live, also escaped damage but with trees down. A large pine tree just brushed the side of the house.
My parents fared better than others. Several buildings, chicken-storage facilities and grain bins were leveled in Trempealeau County. I drove to the farm the next day to help with the cleanup and was astounded at the widespread swath of the storm, which flattened trees between Melrose and Cataract.
The storm came after a month of heavy rain and flooding. Trees were more vulnerable in the loosened soil. Many believed it was a tornado but the damage was caused by straight-line winds. The National Weather Service said wind gusts of 101 miles per hour were recorded in the Melrose area before equipment failed.
The southern track crossed the Mississippi River near the La Crosse-Vernon county line. Barns were destroyed; trees and power lines were blown down. In the Vernon County community of Christiana, one farmer was injured and his cattle needed to be rescued by firefighters after his barn collapsed.
Ten counties in western Wisconsin were declared a federal disaster area with more than $5 million in damages. Six southeastern Minnesota counties also were declared disaster areas; there was more than $8 million in damages in Mower County.
Dad and I cut trees all day with chainsaws. The well was repaired. There was some minor damage to the silo roofs but after the power was restored the farm was back in business. There was not significant damage to the crops.
The long-term impact of the storm was how the woods and landscape were changed by the number of trees blown over. But 22 years later, trees have regrown and there is little evidence of how destructive the storm was.
For farmers in Iowa, damage from the recent storm will depend on whether the corn was broken off or just bent over. Any corn snapped off will need to be harvested for corn silage. The impact on individual farmers will depend on the state of their crop insurance; damage to bins and elevators will affect storage this fall.
Either way, it’s a blow farmers didn’t need as we continue to cope in the strange and crazy year of 2020.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
If experience is the best teacher, then surely we have learned a few important, unforgettable lessons in this otherwise forgettable year.
If it isn’t a good teacher or we are uncaring students, then we’ve squandered most of the year, over $4 trillion, and almost 200,000 lives on lessons still needing to be learned.
That’s not just regrettable; it’s borderline criminal for several reasons.
For example, America’s abdication of leadership on climate change has put the world even further behind in nature’s fire-and-brimstone future for our children and grandchildren. So far, 2020 has delivered:
• Back-to-back destructive hurricanes on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
• Daytime temperatures in southern California of 115 degrees or more that, in turn, now fuel more than 400 wildfires in the state.
• Straight line winds, called a derecho, that either damaged or destroyed millions of crop acres and hundreds of millions of dollars in property from Nebraska to Ohio.
And, perhaps most remarkable of all, each of these once-in-a-generation, climate-related disasters happened in just one month, August.
If that weather-fueled havoc proves anything, it proves how vain and foolish we are when Mother Nature smiles and how puny and vulnerable we are when she doesn’t. But we deny climate change during both.
Farmers and ranchers are learning another costly lesson that most already knew: trade wars aren’t just unwinnable, they’re damnable. The proof is anytime any one of them looks at any current futures market chart or any monthly bank statement.
More proof arrived Sept. 2 in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2020 Farm Income Forecast. It showed that annual federal farm program payments in each of the last four years, FY2017 through FY2020 respectively, were $11.5 billion, $13.7 billion, $22.4 billion, and $37.2 billion.
That’s what an outdated federal ag policy trapped in an ill-advised trade war wrapped inside a still-spreading global pandemic looks like in U.S. farm country: $85 billion worth for bandages and iodine — $60 billion in the last two years alone — with more of both promised in 2021.
On a nationwide percentage basis, direct federal payments to U.S. farmers and ranchers were 11.3 percent of FY2017 net farm income. This year they made up a record 31 percent of the nation’s net farm income.
And that’s the good news; the bad news is that it’s a solid bet to be even higher next year.
The biggest reason is that the billions for ag and the trillions for other sectors were meant to buy time to build a levee against an all-but-certain second wave of coronavirus predicted to hit this fall.
But for any number of bad reasons — too hasty reopenings, too little mask wearing, too many mass gatherings, and almost no coordination between states — the wave hit in the middle of summer.
The deeply divided Congress responded by doing little, then nothing, and now COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. likely will surpass 200,000 by the end of September and, experts — who have been spot-on so far — predict, 410,000 by year’s end.
That’s 120,000 more than all American “battle deaths” in World War II, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
If that number still doesn’t move our political, farm, and community leaders to take today’s pandemic seriously, then we all are doomed to even more government debt, business failure, and death.
What should puzzle us now, however, is that all of this was predicted: how 2020 was going to be a punishing year for climate change; how the trade war would devastate American farm income; how the pandemic’s rapid spread, virulence, and cost would hit America like nothing ever seen before.
Worse, after all the pain, suffering, and debt, we have not learned 2020’s stark lessons well enough to change course. In fact, we have spent the year going in a circle and are now back where we started in February.
Only this time, the lessons will cost double and triple or more.
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.
© 2020 ag comm
In a few weeks, it’ll be the one-year anniversary of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s infamous visit to the World Dairy Expo in Madison, where he noted “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” That very week, Stop the Stealin’ protests in Omaha had brought ranchers from across the country, some arriving on horseback, to challenge meatpacker monopolies. During the course of the past year, we have seen rising anti-monopolization sentiments across the Midwest stoked by a pandemic.
The consolidated meat processing industry endangered front-line workers and cheated ranchers. Supply chains failed to deliver food from farm to table and left us in short supply of necessary medical equipment. Despite protests and ample evidence of a sick economic and food system, corporate-dominated capitalism received hardly a slap on the wrist. Most of our candidates remain remarkably quiet on the issue that could be pivotal to the survival of farm country.
Some say it’s inevitable, that’s just the free market and it will correct itself. It’s troubling that those who dare to question who is benefiting and who is losing are labeled radicals, socialists, nationalists, anti-free traders, or unpatriotic.
In light of the moment, it seems timely to look back at the capitalistic principles that brought us to this point. I’m reminded of the works of economist Adam Smith, whose writings aligned with the birth of our nation.
Smith is credited as the founder of laissez-faire capitalism and free trade. The famed Scotsman coined a term, “the invisible hand,” to describe unintended social benefits of a free market, noting this force could guide wealth and well-being so individuals and communities could benefit from a less regulated economic environment.
Students of Smith’s writings have used the theory to rationalize policies like “trickle-down” economics and free trade. Smith was a proponent of free trade for the benefit of individuals, communities and nations, and not a fan of government regulation in markets, but he also noted that maximizing returns for a few elites should never trump human sympathy and morality. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he writes that self-interest must be balanced by compassion and justice.
Let’s separate self-interest from greed. In The Wealth of Nations Smith wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Independent businesses know better how to run their lives than the government, but that does not mean they should be squashed by merchant elites whom Smith equally called to task. Ultimately, profit at any cost is no less than greed, and it stems from selfishness, not self-interest.
Smith surmised that people work for self-interest, but some free market economists have distorted this idea. Let’s say a farmer wants to ensure their family is doing well and manage their business as independently as possible. Of course, a farmer must pay attention to productivity, efficiency and profit, but Smith, perhaps an unrecognized early champion of sustainability, noted social and environmental considerations are also important to survival. Maximizing exorbitant profit for a few in the supply chain at the expense of others will not create a healthy economy or stable political system. An individual’s own best interest overlaps with the interests of others in the world of production, manufacturing and commerce and this symbiotic relationship can bring about powerful societal benefits.
What would Smith think of the role of corporations in our modern economy? He might remind us that colonists weren’t too fond of these enterprises either. Those idolized Boston tea patriots were protesting corporate tax breaks and demanding a say in policy, and they destroyed private property to make their point.
Foundational understandings of freedom and enterprise have been hijacked, and we are headed toward a plutocracy in which those of great wealth rule society. One might say we don’t really have capitalism anymore, we have crony capitalism whereby close relationships between businesses and the state rule, with individuals left out. Increasingly, individuals don’t control goods, services, or means of production.
In America, corporations have rights that are equal to or greater than individuals, including the right of free speech and the right to take property for private gain through eminent domain. Citizens can’t negotiate tax rates, but a large corporation can. Bad actor corporations conspire to eliminate competitiveness which is antithetical to a free market economy.
The crux of the problem is that large corporations have become synonymous with capitalism. The idea of the invisible hand was to free the capture of the state from the merchant elite as much as it was to free trade from government regulation. Modern capitalists forget that.
Two centuries later, many of Smith’s writings remain relevant. We could stand to learn from his moral philosophy, which seems so absent in the current climate. It is ironic that economists and politicians have focused almost exclusively on Smith’s warnings of state intervention in the market. Had they been informed by his whole body of work, they might have heeded his warnings about networks of monopolies that stifle freedom and hurt the middle class.
Our infrastructure is crumbling, income inequality is eroding the trust people have in one another, and communities are growing more polarized. The marriage of the state to corporate power is hurting independent farmers in such a way that they may not recover. It is time to strike a better balance between watchful self-governance and commercial freedom. Our best way forward in that regard is to pull together individuals, farmers and laborers alike, under a new mantra of economic democracy, and our first place to reunite is at the voting booth.
Julie Keown-Bomar is executive director of Wisconsin Farmers Union, a grassroots organization committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities, and all people through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors, and civic engagement. Learn more about WFU’s efforts to elevate rural voices at www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com/rural-voices.