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Farmers find there may be such a thing as too much attention

I recall it was not that long ago when some farmers were decrying the fact they were “invisible” to the general public — that most folks took it for granted they had an affordable, readily attainable food supply. And I've heard more than one farmer say that whenever folks can't afford to eat, or if there's ever a shortage of food, then people will start paying attention.

Well, it has finally happened. Food prices are skyrocketing, and Sam's Club is even limiting the amount of rice you can buy. And yes, people are now paying attention to farmers and to agriculture in general, giving credence to the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.”

This really struck me a few weeks ago, during a trip to New York City. You wouldn't think that New Yorkers, in their never-ending hustle and bustle, would give a second thought to agriculture. But during this week in mid-May, with negotiations over the farm bill in their final stages, the newspapers were full of opinions and news about farm legislation, food prices and agriculture in general.

The New York Post, known for its creative headlines, ran a column shouting “Grand Theft Agriculture!” The column was an all-too-familiar anti-farm bill rant, complaining that “the farm bill, which subsidizes an arbitrarily chosen section of the economy at the expense of taxpayers and consumers, is special-interest legislation by definition.”

That's either arrogance or stupidity - labeling food production as an “arbitrarily chosen section of the economy.”

The column then goes on to complain that farm subsidies represent “welfare for rich people,” even though it states later that farmers have a median income of $55,000. Maybe New Yorkers have their own definition of what it means to be rich. At the real estate prices they're charging in Manhattan, not to mention the cost of a hotel room, the average farmer couldn't support him or herself for more than a couple of months.

The column also has a lot to say about “surging food prices, record farm income and a tight federal budget.” However, it never mentions the skyrocketing costs associated with fuel, fertilizer, land rent and other input costs. Nor does it talk about food as a security issue, and how miniscule the cost of farm subsidies is compared to the cost of fighting terrorism on foreign soil.

Later that same week, I found no fewer than three stories in The New York Times about agriculture and other food production issues. One particularly alarming article was about how Third World food supplies have been negatively impacted by worldwide budget cuts in crop research. For example, the article states that the damage being done to rice crops in East Asia could have been prevented. Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute say they know how to create rice hybrids that are resistant to damaging insects, but budget cuts have prevented them from doing so.

This is just one example, states the article, of the many problems that are beginning to come to light in the world's agricultural system. Experts say that during the food surpluses of recent decades, governments and development agencies lost focus on the importance of helping poor countries improve their agriculture.

Yet another article from The Times begins with the headline, “A Brighter Side of High Prices,” and then goes on to talk about how the high crop prices of today could lead to a new wave of agricultural advances. “…many people are stunned, even frightened, by all the increases. But some entrepreneurs and analysts — recognizing that relative price increases in specific goods always encourage innovators to find ways around the problem — say they see an opportunity for creative solutions.”

The article adds this caveat, however: “Smart people won't shift their efforts to agricultural problems if they think that price increases are only temporary.”

Just rest assured that as farmers, you're no longer invisible to the world at large. Time will tell whether that's a good or a bad thing.

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