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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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The week that Kerry voted to extend the compact beyond its original three-year sunset date, even the Boston Globe editorialized against it, calling it "a particularly regressive policy in that the burden fell most heavily on the poor." The Globe continued, "It is typical of today's liberalism that many adherents will in effect tax the poor to try to preserve a lifestyle enjoyed by few. . . . All of New England will be well rid of this bad law."

Kerry's support for the compact points up another reason why he is falling flat in farm country--his utter cluelessness about the agricultural economy. Consider this: During a campaign stop in Missouri, Kerry called for a big boost for ethanol, the motor fuel additive made from corn. To characterize ethanol as wildly popular among corn farmers is an understatement. In fact, part of the stalemate in Congress over Bush's comprehensive energy plan can be attributed to partisan wrangling over who will get political credit for delivering the plan's mandate for the use of five billion gallons a year of "renewable fuel"--i.e. ethanol. But even the most ardent ethanol proponents realize there is a limit to its use, hence the generally agreed upon level of five billion gallons.

Kerry's plan calls for 20 percent of all U.S. motor fuel to be renewable by the year 2020--a level about 10 times greater than the energy bill's renewable fuels provision. While his "20 percent by 2020" slogan may sound catchy on the stump, it is absolutely absurd. If all the renewable fuel under Kerry's plan were to be corn ethanol, that would require 18 billion bushels of corn a year just for fuel. But the total world production of corn for all uses is only about 23 billion bushels a year. If just half of Kerry's ethanol mandate were to come from corn (currently the lowest cost source of ethanol), a full 9 billion bushels of corn would be destined for the internal combustion engine, rather than livestock feed or human food use. Though the United States is by far the world's largest corn producer, this year's record crop will amount to only 11 billion bushels.

If Kerry's energy proposal did not wipe out the U.S. livestock and meat industry--by diverting the corn it depends on from livestock feed to fuel pumps--his embrace of animal rights would. Kerry has been endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States, which opposes virtually all standard commercial livestock production practices. To earn the group's backing he's promised to end the use of preventative antibiotics for livestock, and to deny federal funds to buy eggs and chicken meat for the school lunch and breakfast programs from farms that do not employ so-called "humane" practices--an open-ended standard designed to regulate mass poultry production out of existence.

According to Kerry's completed questionnaire for the group, "I have fought for and secured an increase in funding for existing animal protection laws, including the Animal Welfare Act and the Humane Slaughter Act in recent years. I have cosponsored almost every piece of animal protection legislation." What of the Agriculture Department he once wanted to dismantle? Kerry now "finds it disturbing that there are only about 100 [USDA] inspectors nationwide to enforce the Animal Welfare Act. . . . More resources are desperately needed and under a Kerry Administration, dedicating the necessary resources would be a priority."

Economic regulation would also be a priority. A Kerry administration USDA would "take seriously their need to investigate price discrimination"--i.e., siding with farmers against their primary customers, the meatpackers and grain and dairy processors. For example, Kerry wants to forbid meat packers from purchasing livestock any earlier than two weeks before slaughter. A state requirement to that effect in Iowa, which the Des Moines Register called a "misguided effort to legislate nostalgia," was struck down by the courts. So was a similar stricture in South Dakota. But that doesn't deter Kerry.

The ownership ban is intended to limit meat packers' market power over producers. However, it will almost certainly backfire, and end up imposing more restrictions on producers than packers. Its real effect will be to limit the opportunities producers have to sell. Ultimately, livestock farmers have no marketing outlet other than meat packers; the timing of when they sell is a key profit-management tool. Limiting to a two week window the chance farmers have to recoup their two- to three-year investment in a meat animal will cost producers. Terry Stokes, CEO of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, placed a 2002 congressional proposal by South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, on which the Kerry plan is modeled, "in the same category as the Nixon price freeze . . . as far as its impact on the beef industry."