Writing about food policy again (Why bother is a good question?): My published articles for Newsday are a good place to prepare for Donald Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture

Note: This is a work in progress. It contains too many typographical errors as I work my way to coherence. Please be patient until it is ready for the moral equivalent of prime time.


Last month I celebrated my 69th birthday in the hospital. This is the second year in a row I celebrated my birthday in the hospital. {1} [Yes, there are footnotes.}  Last year I was pleased about being at Mount Nittany Medical Center. I nearly died, but didn’t and that pleased me. Plus, after the emergency room doctor and Dr. Haroon saved my life, I had a marvelous room. The wide windows looked out on dramatic trees changing color along our beautiful mountains. On my birthday, I spent hours staring at clouds mindful that at 68 it had been decades since I had devoted my time to clouds–mindful of time and what I have spent my life doing.

For example, it took me ten years from the time I signed a book contract with New Republic Books until the book arrived via UPS completed published by another publisher Sierra Club Books. Marty Peretz (the colorful owner of The New Republic) had expressed enthusiasm for my book proposal which highlighted the backbreaking work of a New York State dairy farmers. At 28 I was head over heels in love with N.O. (whom I had met at the office of a congresswoman from Connecticut (2). Ten years later, Danny Moses, my Sierra Club editor had inserted The Politics of Food in a UPS envelope (with a gracious note)–the envelope arriving  when at 38 my daughter Joanna was celebrating her first birthday.  Yes, I had hurriedly opened my present not daring to actually admire it until after Joanna’s cake went from unlit candles to consumed–the party over.

My 68th birthday musing included the realization that I have indeed led an interesting life. In researching The Politics of Food, for example, I stood in a Louisiana rice field holding a white flag so the pilot above me knew where to drop the seeds–planting them not only in the muddy field but on my head as well. I have watched Jamaicans flown in to the Florida Everglades harvest sugar cane by hand, walked back and forth across the California/Mexican border researching the Imperial Valley (where movies are made presumably fooling viewers they are seeing Saharan deserts) and stood in the wheat pits at the Chicago Board of Trade where the marketplace has still supplanted the government as telling farmers how much to plant–asking the question I still ask today: “Who needs a U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

My 69th birthday by comparison was misery–recovering from surgery. I was so sick I refused to answer congratulatory telephone calls taking comfort only from Mozart–non stop Mozart. This year as last nurses coming on shift after commenting on the weather asked “What did you used to be?” The question having been asked now for over a decade still disturbs me–the implication being I have retired and once was somebody.

By way of comparison, this year’s hospitalization was for surgery I have been trying to obtain for over three years. Now that I am recovering, I am proud to say I have exchanged opiates to control chronic pain with a vibrator (surgically implanted with a rechargeable battery). Consequently, my energy now and in the future can be used for pursuing agriculture? [Food policy sounds better than agriculture but does not fool anyone.]

Newsday is one of the best newspapers in the United States




As I prepare to write about U.S. food policy especially as it concerns alleviating world hunger and providing U.S. farmers with income, a good place to start is an article I published on the selection of Ronald Reagan’s second secretary of agriculture–a man whose selection the general public neglected even before he took the oath of office.


New Secretary’s Farm Policy

Newsday – Long Island, N.Y.

Author: By Joel Solkoff
Date: Apr 4, 1986
Start Page: 94
Document Text

ABOUT HALF the net income of farmers comes from government payments. This is welfare, payments to farmers both to engage in make-work jobs – such as producing wheat, corn, and other food products for government warehouses – and to set aside land so they are paid not to work at all. The central problem that new Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng has to solve is how to get farmers off welfare without damaging the agricultural economy.

Taxpayers can no longer afford to support farmers. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave farmers $18 billion. In 1981 the cost was $6 billion, up from $1 billion in 1975. The increase to farmers has been at the expense of the poor, such as recipients of food stamps.

Next year, under the farm law signed by President Ronald Reagan Dec. 23, farm payments will certainly continue their dramatic increase. The intention was to keep paying farmers for the next three years at the current $18 billion a year. The reality may be price supports for farmers, which, according to Earl Butz, former agriculture secretary, “will make front-page headlines in the The Washington Post.” At the rate that Congress is making add-ons and changes to the 13-pound law, the United States could spend more than $30 billion in tax dollars next year on welfare to farmers.

This is happening at a time when the public is being inundated with information about budget cuts. One program that may not be around next year is that providing college loans to middle-class families. Given the choice between sending your child to college or subsidizing the income of a corn farmer, what would you instruct your congressmen to do?

Clearly, farmers will suffer if Congress is forced to decide between keeping programs that affect its predominantly urban and suburban constituents directly and keeping those of indirect benefit at best. Farmers comprise less than 3 percent of the population, and when they are in trouble, those of us who are not farmers have a difficult time evaluating the nature of the difficulty.

In each of the past 11 years that I’ve been writing about farm policy, for example, I have heard farmers on farm group lobbyists testify that “This year is the worst since the Great Depression.” Some of those years turned out to be ones of record income, however. Now farmers have cried wolf once too often.

An abrupt termination of farm aid might, however, endanger development of competitive edge abilities in an agriculture sector undergoing a difficult shakeout. Essentially, farmers who were attracted to farming by the period of high prices (beginning in 1972) bought land selling at all-time highs or rented it. They and farmers who borrowed heavily using the inflated price of their land as collateral, discovered, as crop prices and land prices dropped simultaneously, that they had a difficult time surviving.

Probably most will not survive. What will remain is the more than 70 percent of the farm population with comparatively little debt. However, government payments to farmers since 1977 have increasingly isolated farmers from domestic and international consumers. These payments reward inefficiency and have encouraged efficient farmers to become less so.

Lyng believes that farmers must get off welfare quickly. As deputy secretary, he repeatedly advocated lower price supports, arguing that high government payments were making U.S. farmers less competitive on world markets – causing them to lose future income to competitors from Canada, Argentina, Brazil, etc.

Lyng is well-respected in Washington, where since 1969 he’s worked as a high-level USDA official or as an agriculture lobbyist. Even the severest critics of the administration’s farm policy praised his skills. Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), for example, joined his Democratic colleagues on the Senate Agriculture Committee in supporting Reagan’s nominee.

Lyng, who is trusted by Democrats and Republicans, will lead agriculture policy on a middle course – between dramatically higher government payments and no payments at all – before eventually cutting farmers off welfare. There has long been an absence of effective farm-policy leadership in Washington. Lyng’s predecessor John Block – who sang country-and-western songs over the radio – was regarded as politically naive. Lyng, who worked as director of California’s Department of Agriculture when Reagan was governor, has close ties to the president and so is well positioned to provide the necessary leadership.

–Joel Solkoff is the author of “The Politics of Food,” published by Sierra Club/Random House Books. He is a Washington, D.C., writer and consultant.




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