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Cultural wars inside farm country

A cultural war inside farm country may be emerging between conventional agriculture and organic production and the issue is “not worthy of debate,” says Barry Flinchbaugh, professor of agricultural economics and farm policy at Kansas State University.

Flinchbaugh and former ranking member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee Charlie Stenholm discussed this and other issues recently in Forth Worth during the annual Ag Media Summit.

“It’s a stupid argument,” Flinchbaugh said. “One-third of the world is hungry or malnourished. Conventional agriculture will feed the world and a world without hunger is a world without terrorism.”

“When I was in Congress I used to oppose organic agriculture,” Stenholm said. “I could not see how organic production could feed the world. But it occurred to me that organic farmers are making good money so why would I oppose that. But organics is a niche market.”

That’s the way President Obama sees it, too, Flinchbaugh said. He said the president indicated that organics would be important to local markets. “But conventional agriculture will feed the world.”

The two long-time friends sometimes take opposing views on agricultural, political and economic issues but agree on many as well. Stenholm, a lifelong Democrat, and Flinchbaugh, a self-declared Independent, veered off into issues other than farm policy, including the makeup of Obama’s cabinet, the increasingly partisan atmosphere in Washington, the recession and U.S. debt.

Flinchbaugh said he was “amazed” at the moderate personality of Obama’s cabinet appointments. “He’s governing just left of center,” he said. “I’m surprised. It’s less liberal and appointments are middle of the road.”

But the bickering goes unabated, said Stenholm, now a policy advisor for the law firm Olsson, Frank and Weeda. “It’s easy for the Republican side to take polarizing positions. To suggest that the economy is President Obama’s fault leaves me puzzled. He’s been in office only six months and the (downturn) built up over the last eight to 12 years. Pick a number.”

They both said partisanship is the worst they’ve ever seen. It’s even invaded agriculture. “The House and Senate have always put farmers first but cracks in that (coalition) seem to be coming,” Flinchbaugh said. “That scares the hell out of me.”

“People hate bickering,” Stenholm said. He said changing the way states redistrict could ease partisanship. “We need to draw competitive lines, get competitive districts so candidates have to listen to another view to be elected. That makes for better legislators. Some states are already doing that.”

Stenholm said in his 26 years in Congress he always ran in a competitive district. “They redrew the lines to get rid of me,” he said.

He said both parties need to re-evaluate their positions. “Republicans have gone too far to the right and Democrats have always been too far to the left but are now closer to the center than the Republican base.”

He said Blue Dog Democrats, a group he helped form, operated “in the radical or rational center. We tried to find middle ground. But the political process still works pretty well.”

Stenholm referred to Flinchbaugh on several occasions as a Republican. “I am a registered Independent,” Flinchbaugh responded, “but I like the term rational center.”

He said Congress is too often at a stalemate. “Democrats spend like drunken sailors, but Bush left office with a record deficit. In six months Congress has tripled it.”

Flinchbaugh said the Democrat mantra has been “spend, spend, spend,” while the Republicans have retorted with “no, no, no. Congress is too partisan and mean spirited.”

He said he fully agreed with a stimulus plan, “just not the one Congress passed.”

Stenholm said federal taxation is at a historical low, but spending is at a historical high. He expressed disappointment that Republicans continue to refuse to support “pay go,” a program that would require either budget cuts or tax increases to pay for the increased spending. “They opposed it when they were in the majority and now oppose it when they are in the minority,” he said.

“The Republicans are not about to give Democrats their issue,” Flinchbaugh said. “They will vote no.” He said a tax increase will be necessary to get the deficit under control.

“I’m not worried about the level of spending,” he said. “It’s necessary to jump start the economy. Paul Volcker, Obama’s economic advisor, will be a key. “The minute he sees the economy turning, he has to close the trap door.”

He said long-range economic predictions “are not worth the paper they’re printed on. It’s difficult enough to predict six months out.”

Stenholm said he’s concerned about mounting U.S. debt. “How long can the United States continue borrowing from the rest of the world and how long will the rest of the world keep lending to us?”

He said his last vote in Congress was on the deficit, particularly “whether the debt should be handed to our grandchildren.”

“I’ve never seen issues more complex or Congress more partisan,” Flinchbaugh said.

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