Bob Kraft: Obama ignored agriculture in SOTU
Thursday, January 30, 2014 11:48 AM
By ROBERT KRAFT
INDIANAPOLIS - My first reaction to President Barak Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening was to wonder why agriculture received no mention whatsoever. With our dysfunctional Congress congratulating itself on finally reaching a compromise on a farm bill earlier in the day, it seems the President could have used that as a timely example of the bipartisan cooperation he has been demanding.
But no, I heard no mention of it whatsoever. Since my mind wandered occasionally during the evening, I thought I may have missed at least a passing reference to ag, so I downloaded a copy of the speech and ran a word search. Neither “farm” nor “agriculture” made it into an hour long discourse by our nation’s chief executive on the state of our union.
To his credit, the President did address a couple of issues that are important to farmers and rural America. The need for meaningful immigration reform remains high on the list of agriculture’s needs, especially in the areas of specialty crops and food processing.
Obama cited the need to improve our country’s aging infrastructure and proposed a “fix-It-first” program which would immediately address the country’s most urgent infrastructure repairs. He specifically cited “the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.” But he also proposed a “Partnership to Rebuild America” designed to attract private capital to address the nation’s infrastructure improvement needs. My concern with such a program is that private capital will understandably demand a payback and, unless it is intentionally structured to do otherwise, will make investment in rural infrastructure less attractive than that in more heavily populated areas.
The President also noted the importance of international trade although he made no specific mention of trade in agricultural commodities. He assured Congress that he intends to complete a Trans-Pacific Partnership and launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union. This sounds great except he didn’t acknowledge the very real issues of intellectual property rights, the EU’s reticence or refusal to accept GMO crops produced in America, or Canada’s – to say nothing of our domestic livestock industry’s – issues with country of origin labeling, that must be addressed.
Apart from a general statement that America is “poised to take control of our energy future,” the President made no mention of biofuels or the progress that has been made to develop an agricultural based source of renewable energy. This is probably not a surprise because the Environmental Protection Administration has just closed the comment period on a proposed renewable fuel standard rule that will decimate the ethanol industry.
While the issues raised by the President Tuesday evening were appropriate and unquestionably important for the country, it is nevertheless disappointing that he so completely ignored agriculture.
After reviewing the State of the Union speech, I began to wonder if agriculture had fared any better at the state level, so I downloaded a copy of Gov. Mike Pence’s Jan. 14 State of the State address and ran a similar search. Gov. Pence did include agriculture in his speech by observing that, “Indiana is agriculture and we need a permanent fix to the soil productivity factor.”
Gov. Pence’s observation was certainly welcome and there is no question that the ongoing issue of how to fairly adjust farmland assessments to reflect the productivity capacity of various soil types needs to be resolved. It is in interesting that this is even an issue because it is predicated on the bureaucratic assumption by the Department of Local Government Finance under the Daniels administration that somehow the nature of dirt changes every few years.
Like the President, Pence acknowledged that “roads mean jobs.” But the governor went one step further and specifically asked for the release of “$400 million for the next era of highway expansion, and put people to work now.”
The governor also stated, “Because Indiana’s regional cities are vital to our state’s economic development, we need public and private investment to improve quality of life.” Again, by definition cities are not where the state’s farms are, but this statement at least demonstrates that he recognizes there are important economic centers across the state.
Agriculture was not featured prominently in either “State of” speech. Perhaps this is simply a tendency of those involved in agriculture to go about their business and maintain a low profile. Perhaps it is to be expected when farmers comprise something less than two percent of the population. Perhaps our chief executives’ speechwriters think that food comes from grocery stores.
Whatever the case may be, one can only hope that, although their agenda-setting speeches focused primarily on other matters, issues of importance to rural America and rural Indiana will receive high-level attention during the next year.
Kraft was a long-time director of the Indiana Farm Bureau’s public affairs.