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Thunder on the plains

Barry Flinchbaugh with cigar
“I don’t like the phrase ‘Tell it like it is, because I don’t profess to know how it is,” says Barry Flinchbaugh. “What I like to hear is, ‘Flinchbaugh always calls it as he sees it.”
Farm bill insider Barry Flinchbaugh could make U.S. farm policy seem more exciting than a steamy romance.

Editor’s note: Esteemed ag economist Barry Flinchbaugh passed away Nov. 2, 2020. This story originally ran in Farm Futures in 2007.

A silver-haired man limps slowly to the podium as a crowd of 300 farmers wait in silence. Cane in hand, his grandfatherly demeanor belies a gathering storm.

“It’s farm bill time: Time once again to scare the hell out of farmers,” barks Barry Flinchbaugh, his voice punching each syllable like a hammer against anvil. In an instant this gentile old man is transformed, pumping out more charisma than a preacher in a revival tent. Ranting on everything from marketing loans to Mother Theresa, Flinchbaugh manages to make farm policy more exciting than a steamy romance.  Two hours slip by but the crowd wants more. This is Flinchbaugh at his best: audience in one hand, cigar in the other.

Flinchbaugh is on the edge of outrageous, telling off-color stories and stalking about the stage like a caged leopard. He thrusts the cane at his PowerPoint screen like a swordsman. He got the walking stick and limp thanks to a serious car wreck a year ago. For others it might seem debilitating; for him, it only enhanced his stage presence.

“It adds to the gray hair and the cigar,” he chuckles to me later. “Wouldn’t you agree I look pretty distinguished?” 

Plain-talker

So who is Barry Flinchbaugh? Foremost, he is a plain-talker from the Plains who suffers no fools. He tells it like he sees it, “with no sugarcoating,” he likes to say.  He’s been an insider on farm policy over 35 years and played a key role crafting the 1996 Freedom-to-Farm Bill, all the while managing to maintain a staunch political independence.

But his greatest gift – and his greatest passion - is teaching, not only in his classroom at Kansas State University, but for hundreds of folks who hunger to understand the oft-confusing farm policy initiatives of the U.S. government.

“ If you look at the man without hearing him speak you have a total misperception of who he is,” says Ken Root, a farm broadcaster who has known Flinchbaugh since 1981. “Dr. F. lives on interaction. He doesn’t want you to just sit there and take what he says as Gospel. He wants you to think about it and debate him - with him winning.”

Flinchbaugh gets away with his on-stage antics because he takes the subject seriously, but not himself – at least, not on stage. “Life’s too damn short to take yourself seriously,” he says.

He’s a wanted man these days, making 14 appearances in North America in the first three months of 2007 alone. He gets calls from the highest offices on Capitol Hill; even the folks making the legislation need help at times. Although he is a staunch supporter of farm programs, he likes to poke fun at the bureaucracy and politics.

“I don’t like the phrase ‘tell it like it is, because I don’t profess to know how it is,” says Flinchbaugh. “What I like to hear is, ‘Flinchbaugh always calls it as he sees it.”

And sometimes that rubs people the wrong way – which Flinchbaugh is happy to do, if needed. “There’s nothing wrong with being called a contrarian,” he says. “An old farmer out in Colby, Kan., came up to me after a speech one day, looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Flinchbaugh, I didn’t agree with a damn thing you said, but the next time you’re in Colby, I’ll be here.’ That kind of says it all.”

A native of Pennsylvania with degrees from Penn State and a PhD at Purdue, his farm policy mentor, Earl Butz, was Dean of Agriculture at Purdue before his infamous gig as Agriculture Secretary under Richard Nixon. Flinchbaugh still keeps in touch with Butz, 96, who is in a retirement home in Indiana (editor’s note: Earl Butz passed away in 2008).

“His mind is good in the morning, and every time I talk to him I learn a new story – but there are very few of them I can use in speeches,” Flinchbaugh laughs.

It was Butz who first steered Flinchbaugh’s support for farm policy, an advocacy which continues today.

“It’s popular today to cuss farm bills and I quite frankly wish those people would shut up,” he says. “For what farm bills are designed to do, for the most part they have been successful. Farm bills put a floor under prices; second, they have kept medium sized farmers in business, contrary to popular belief. Three, the benefits of farm bills have been capitalized into land and thus have helped build a collateral base under agriculture.”

Eye of the storm

Flinchbaugh has been teaching policy and economics at K-State since 1971, but in the mid-90s found himself in the epicenter of one of the most innovative farm bills ever - the 1996 Freedom-to-Farm Bill. He ended up being the go-between for three powerful politicians, all from Kansas: Republican Pat Roberts, chairman of the House Ag Committee; Republican Bob Dole, chair of the Senate Ag Committee; and Democrat Dan Glickman, Secretary of Agriculture. Flinchbaugh is a registered independent.

 “I never took up sides between Glickman and Robert,” he says. “They had a healthy respect for each other behind the scenes, so I could advise both of them and not get tainted. I’ve never had one of them mad at me because I did something with the other one. I never carried tales from one office to the other.

“What was really fun is when I got them both together,” Flinchbaugh adds. “Then we had some unique arguments. I would call Pat up and say where’d you get that crazy idea, and I did the same with Glickman.

“If I would have been in partisan politics, I never would have had that opportunity. I would have had one ear, but not both.”

No answers

Barry Flinchbaugh has made a good living from farm policy and economics. But he has had painful moments where even he had questions – and no answers. In 1991 his son came down with Goodpasture’s Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease affecting the lungs and kidneys. Six weeks after he was diagnosed he was dead at the age of 21.

“What got me through that period in my life was a sense of humor,” he says. “If you can survive that, you can survive anything. It’s one of those things that you don’t understand if you’ve never been through it.

“I got a hand-written note from Sen. (Nancy) Kassebaum. She said, ‘I wouldn’t pretend to understand, I just want you to know I care.’ It says it perfectly. I’ve used it many times for friends who have lost a child. You don’t quite get it until you’ve been through it.”

Teaching also helped him survive that time of his life. “At the heart of all this, I love teaching,” he says. “I’m a helluva lot better educator than I would have been a politician.”

On the first day of class, Flinchbaugh tells his students to have fun – but expect to work hard. “My philosophy of teaching is, you bust your ass for me and I’ll bust my ass for you,” he says. “I put my cell phone number on the bulletin board and tell students to call me any time.”

His students love him for it. “He’s one of the best professors I’ve ever seen at endearing himself to students,” says Root. “He has students who will take a bullet for him.”

And like Johnny Appleseed, his influence from 36 years in his classroom has created groves of fans who can’t wait to introduce themselves after a speech. In audiences from Saskatchewan to California, a dozen or so former students reconnect with Flinchbaugh after the applause has died down.

“Frequently they’ll bring up something I taught them,” he says. “Or they’ll want to know if I’m as ornery as I used to be. They always expect me to remember them, which is very difficult. I’ve had 3,500 students go through the Ag Policy 410 undergraduate course at K-State.”

For those of you who aren’t sure, the answer is yes – he’s still as ornery as ever. And everyone from K-State to Capitol Hill is happier for it.

Farm policy through the ages

What you might not know about Barry Flinchbaugh is his rich appreciation for policy history. The Kansas State ag economist is a walking encyclopedia of farm bill trivia.

Did you know, for example, that the first farm bill passed Congress in the mid-20s? “It was a godawful time on the farm,” he says. That legislation said each farmer would get a domestic allotment supported at parity and anything over that would be exported overseas for whatever the market would bear. President Coolidge vetoed it; next year Congress passed it again, Coolidge vetoed it again but Congress sustained it.

“If you want to learn something, read Coolidge’s veto message: he said it was economic folly which this nation had every right to be spared from,” says Flinchbaugh. “Farmers tell me as they stand in line at the FSA office that they tend to agree with Coolidge.”

In the 1930s President Hoover set up Federal Farm Board funded to the tune of $50 million, a drop in the bucket considering the effect of the depression on the farm. Then Roosevelt passed the Ag Adjustment Act, but the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional. Passed later, it gave farmers ‘parity price supports, guaranteeing commodities would be valued at 100% parity.

“You still read about parity, and there’s still farmers who believe in parity,” says Flinchbaugh. “It’s a great word; it just happened to be out of date the next day it was figured.”

 Kennedy and Johnson had what they called diverted acres; Nixon and Ford had price controls and stored reserves. Under Nixon and Ford, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz sold all the government’s bins; Jimmy Carter paid farmers to store grain in their own bins.

In came Reagan, and something called Export Enhancement program; now it’s an issue at WTO. George Bush introduced triple base, the beginning of planting flexibility; Clinton brought in Freedom to Farm.

Now we’ve got George W. Bush. Who knows what his farm bill legacy will be?

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