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Director's Column

One of Frank Sinatra's signature songs was "It Was A Very Good Year." This has not been a very good year for agriculture. I received word recently that both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have zeroed out funding for the Fund for Rural America competitive grants program. This news puts the cap on a year of disasters for agriculture.

When the Federal Agriculture Improvement Act of 1990 was passed, it was with an implicit, if not an explicit, contract that Congress would appropriate $100 million per year for three years to fund research and technology transfer projects in areas that improved the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture, environmental stewardship, and rural communities. This was a trade-off for the withdrawal of government from commodity programs that stabilized prices and farm incomes.

During its first year of operation, several million dollars were withdrawn from the Fund to meet disaster relief needs in the Midwest. This substantially diminished the resources available for the original purposes of the fund.

But if 1997 brought portents of disaster, 1998 has brought torrents. Bear in mind that the federal budget, for the first year in at least two decades, is running a surplus of from $40 - $50 billion. Bear in mind also that the day on which the Fund was being zeroed out, the President was signing the Congress' Highway Bill for $203 billion. According to a news item filed by Glen Johnson for the Associated Press, critics "... label the new law an election-year plum for Congress, saying it contains pork for all 50 states." Utah, which is hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics, gets $640 million.

And this was the year in which the National Commission on Small Farms advocated putting the small, family farm at the centerpiece of agricultural policy. It advocated research on new crops, improved farming and marketing systems, technology development and adoption for value-added products, entrepreneurship development, etc. The zeroing out of the Fund calls into question the government's commitment to meet the recommendations of the National Small Farm Commission.

But besides the political heavy weather, agriculture has been savaged by El Ni–o and, if we believe Vice President Gore, El Niño may become more the norm than the exception. El Niño plus global warming may precipitate an oscillation of climate between floods and drought. If this is the case, risk will increase manyfold for agricultural producers at the very time when the government is determined to privatize risks. The result, if we are unlucky, could be disastrous, as many producers do not have crop insurance and may not be able to cover credit obligations.

But at least with a $203 billion highway program, farmers may have less potholes to traverse as they take products to market