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Down on the Farm

The more John Kerry talks about farm policy, the less America's farmers like him.

8:45 AM, Oct 13, 2004 • By DAVE JUDAY
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FARM POLICY usually peaks as an issue in the presidential campaign a year before the election, in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. But with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio among the most fiercely contested of the battleground states, this year could be an exception.

John Kerry has been stumping across the heartland all summer, offering broad proposals to give "rural Americans the chance to build a better life for themselves and their children." A curious thing has happened, however. The more Kerry has talked about rural policy and federal farm programs, the more support Bush has gained from the sector. And this trend started a good two months before Bush's GOP convention bounce.

Kerry made his first big farm tour in early July, with stops in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio. By late August, it was Bush who had received special recognition awards from the National Pork Producers Council, the National Association of Corn Growers, and an outright endorsement--the first ever bestowed by the group--from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, all three major farm organizations with significant political clout.

Part of Kerry's problem, no doubt, is his foppish pandering. "I learned my first cuss word sitting on a tractor with the guy who was driving it," Kerry told a group of farmers in Wisconsin. But alas, this anecdote lost its intended effect when the Kerry campaign staff later clarified that his tutorial occurred when 12-year-old John was home on vacation from his Swiss boarding school--something most third- and fourth-generation Midwestern farmers don't relate to.

Or, consider this jewel, told to the same group of farmers, about how visiting his relatives' farm had made such a deep and profound impression on him, yet, not remembering until halfway through his yarn, that, heck, yes, now that he thought back, he had lived on a farm too! "When I was a kid, this 'kid from the East' had an aunt and uncle who had a dairy farm, and one of my greatest joys in life--in fact, I lived on a farm as a young kid. My parents, when we lived in Massachusetts, we lived on a farm." Yeah, that's the ticket! The Kerry family farm! (Kerry didn't mention whether he ever spent Christmas eve there.)

Most of Kerry's lack of footing with farm groups, though, is substantive. It has to do with what his Republican Senate colleague from Kansas, Pat Roberts, refers to as Kerry's habit of "wearing his flip-flops in the barnyard." The most prominent example is his 1996 call for the abolition of the Department of Agriculture--a position he no longer holds, of course.

On his July farm tour, Kerry was in Wisconsin to showcase another flip-flop--on the price-fixing scheme known as the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact. Back in 1996, Kerry supported the creation of this economic Rube Goldberg contraption that authorized a panel of bureaucrats from six New England states to set a price floor for milk. The idea was to subsidize Vermont's picturesque small dairy farms. More efficient dairy producers, like those in Wisconsin and Minnesota, were unable to offset the higher transportation costs with their lower priced milk, and thus were effectively locked out of the northeast market. Moreover, the artificially high prices mandated by the compact spurred a surfeit of milk from the Northeast, depressing the market elsewhere. Needless to say, though now expired, the compact is still an extremely sore subject with dairymen in the Upper Midwest--it cost them considerable income.

Kerry is keenly aware that Gore won Wisconsin by less than 6,000 votes, and that there are nearly 17,000 dairy farms in the state, so he tried to preempt Republican use of his Senate record against him: "I know that Republicans are going to try very hard to say, 'Oh, John Kerry voted for that dairy compact when he represented Massachusetts. I plead guilty. I did vote for it, because I represented Massachusetts as a United States senator." But, as Democratic nominee for president, Kerry explained, he would "stand up for farmers in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Iowa."

What's astonishing, however, is that as a senator from Massachusetts Kerry felt compelled to support the compact in the first place. Massachusetts had only 353 dairy farms at the time the compact was created according to the USDA. What's more, the compact was primarily designed to subsidize Vermont dairy farmers at the expense of Massachusetts and Connecticut consumers. Indeed, from July 1997 to December 2000 while the compact was in effect, Massachusetts consumers paid an extra $63.2 million for milk, and 85 percent of that went to farmers out of state, primarily in Vermont.