The Magazine

Where's the Beef From?

From the November 17, 2003 issue: Howard Dean's agriculture plan.

Nov 17, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 10 • By DAVE JUDAY
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Consider: As governor of Vermont, Dean was one of the architects of the North East Interstate Dairy Compact, a complicated and ambitious six-state statutory framework that established a regional board to regulate the minimum price of milk that dairy processors could offer to pay farmers. The compact was a fiasco. Small dairy farms in Vermont, the ones Dean was trying to save, went out of business at a faster rate the first year of the compact than before it existed. Retail milk prices to New England consumers rose by a total of $136 million.

In response to the economic chaos it created, Congress let the compact die. Now, however, Dean is proposing to resuscitate the heart of the dairy compact--micro-regulation of commodity prices and purchasing contracts and even animal ownership--and transplant it to the meat industry nationwide. The results are predictable.

With his ag plan, Dean continues to promote his bona fides as 12-year governor of America's most rural state. But Vermont's rurality (more than 61 percent of the population lives in rural communities) is largely divorced from commercial agriculture--i.e., the kind of agriculture that feeds the more than 98 percent of the U.S. population that does not live on farms and adds an annual $97.3 billion to our nation's gross domestic product. In fact, one of the stated goals of the dairy compact, according to the commission that oversaw it, was to preserve commercially unviable small agricultural scenes as a prop for New England's tourist industry.

This approach, called "multi-functionality" by the Europeans, was at the core of the European Union's ruinously expensive agriculture policy--until this year, when the overwhelming cost forced reforms. Dean's designs on the meat sector--the engine of the U.S. agricultural economy, as it happens--would Europeanize our food and agricultural system.

Agricultural policy doesn't typically get a lot of attention during presidential campaigns, either by candidates or by journalists and pundits. In the case of Howard Dean, however, his heavy-handed agricultural plan--and record--is a window into his political soul and merits closer examination by commentators. Dean's tough meat industry policy should give them a lot to chew on.

Dave Juday is an agricultural commodity market analyst.