Ikerd, Big Eddie And Critical Thinking

I kind of got a kick out of going to the Northern Plains Sustainable Agricultural Society’s Winter Conference at Aberdeen, S.D., recently.

The first speaker I walked in on was John Ikerd, a kind of renegade agricultural economist from the University of Missouri at Columbia. He says he was slapped down a few years ago when he was critical of what he saw as his institution’s promotion of confinement-style livestock production. I took a special interest in him because his next stop was supposed to be Bismarck, where he was a guest speaker for the Dakota Resource Council, in opposition to CAFOs.

Besides the obvious angle for an Agweek story, I kept looking at Ikerd’s face, trying to remember where I’d heard him speak before. By the end of his speech, I remembered.

Ikerd was a speaker at the North Dakota Farmers Union annual meeting in Bismarck, N.D., in 2002, where I happened to have been on an ag media” panel. It was one of the most memorable farm meetings I’ve ever attended.

First, “Big Eddie” of KFGO fame was also on the ag media panel. Ed Schulz, the formerly famous arch conservative, had now become Ed Schulz the left-wing prairie populist. In the long shadow of Big Eddie and his microphone were me, and an insignificant fellow named Al Gustin. (Of course, I’m kidding, folks.  Al is truly one of my heroes in agricultural reporting in the region – always a class act in a very strong group of regional agricultural broadcasters.)

Anyway, I remember one woman coming to the microphone, asking the panel how we – in the media — could help farmers tell their story to city folks.  Eddie unabashedly said, that yes, this was his role. He was a true advocate. I, on the other hand, had to tell the woman that telling her story is really up to her. My role as a journalist was to simply write stories about agriculture that should be interesting and knowledge-building for readers – people in farming, ranching and agribusiness. I am not the advocate for anyone in particular – Farmers Union, Farm Bureau, Dakota Resource Council, and the list goes on and on. I don’t even see myself as an advocate for production agriculture, or the middleman, or the consumer. I just follow my nose and write about things that – I hope – might add some light to someone or something on the ag scene.

Anyway, back to Ikerd.

Ikerd gave a long speech about the just-passed 2002 Farm Bill.

The bill was bad, he said, for three reasons: 1) Philosophy. There was no targeting of farm program benefits to the smaller producers, and away from the big guys who he said don’t need the support; 2) Money. The bill was all about shoveling out money and the more the better. 3) Politics. The money flowed to the states with the political power.

Ikerd left the stage to a standing ovation – a long one.

And then Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., came to the stage. Pomeroy was euphoric about Ikerd’s message. He asked for more applause for the professor emeritus. The crowd willingly complied.

And then Pomeroy gave his speech.

Pomeroy said the 2002 Farm Bill was good, for two reasons: 1) Philosophy. The bill did just about what like-minded congressional members had wanted; 2) Money. It was good it got passed before the budget turned sour – more money. And a third thing: Politics. Pomeroy wanted to thank the North Dakota Farmers Union for backing him on his jumping from the Agriculture Committee to the House Ways and Means Committee. It afforded North Dakota more political clout.

And then they gave Pomeroy a standing ovation. It was a fascinating study in critical thinking. Postscript: One of the challenges agriculture seems to have is how to replicate the 2002 Farm Bill’s success in 2007. Ikerd’s answer to that is that agriculture is that all of this approval of the current farm program is about shorter-term economic goals, not the long-term sustainable ones.