Despite the record attendance indoors and warm sunshine outdoors, the 2013 Commodity Classic felt a little gloomy this afternoon after the main corn and soybean organizations expressed utter disappointment with Congress over the absence of a new farm bill.
With sequestration about to bring a hammer down on all federal budgets including USDA, there's a feeling of helplessness here that seems out of place, considering how profitable agriculture has been in recent years.
Farmer leaders blame Congress and the White House. These two plain don't like each other, and as a result, agriculture suffers.
"Without a new farm bill we have uncertainty and that does not help us make good decisions on investments, plantings, machinery purchases – everything," says Danny Murphy, a Mississippi farmer and president of American Soybean Association.
Don't get me wrong here. Long term, agriculture is still the place to be, even if there is nervousness over demand destruction and the upcoming growing season. Another drought would not be welcome. "My biggest concern right now is that it won't rain this year," says NCGA president Pam Johnson, Floyd, Iowa.
Later on I sat on a hallway bench and talked to NCGA chairman Garry Niemeyer, an Auburn, Ill., farmer whom I have known and interviewed going back to my days as editor of Prairie Farmer. Niemeyer, who will head to Washington, D.C. soon for 11 days on Capitol Hill, is as frustrated as anyone over today's political blame game. Trying to work with a president with extreme political leanings means there is little room for compromise, he says. "He has his viewpoint, and it seems there is no other viewpoint to work with," Niemeyer adds.
But he also worries that farm organizations can't seem to present a clear message to elected officials who don't often understand the agriculture business. That's more important than ever, with Congress in such gridlock.
"We thought this was going to get better after the election, and now it's worse than ever," he told me. "It almost makes you wonder why they even want to get elected."
If there's any consolation to all this, you might feel better knowing it's not the first time our country has endured such political stalemate. Consider the great gridlock of 1842, as detailed in a fine article penned by Alasdair Roberts at PBS.
"Roll the clock back to March 1842," he writes. "Across the country, public disgust with the ineptness of the nation's leaders was rising." A British diplomat wrote from the capital that the United States had become "a mass of ungovernable and unmanageable anarchy."
Charles Dickens, visiting with then president John Tyler, described him as "worn and anxious, and well he might, being at war with everybody."
Sound familiar? Read on, here. It would seem history is repeating itself, and not in a good way.
The one bright spot on Ag's horizon, says Niemeyer, is a bill introduced today by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D, PA, that would boost investment in locks and dams and waterways – a key component to efficient commodity transportation. Sen. Casey’s Reinvesting In Vital Economic Rivers and Waterways Act of 2013, also known as the RIVER Act, will help ensure locks and dams projects stay on schedule and on budget. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D, LA, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D, MN.
"It's time that we start growing this country," Niemeyer says. "We need to have infrastructure improvements, it's absolutely essential. We talk about demand destruction– we're losing our export markets to Brazil and Argentina right now. We have to stop that.
"It's one thing to pass free trade agreements, but if we can't reliably deliver the grain, it doesn't make any sense. It's time to build new locks."
Passage of that bill, and a fresh commitment to our interior waterway system, would certainly put some spring in everyone's step.
Maybe it's just what we need to stop the fighting and start moving everyone in the right direction.