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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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Kerry also promises to implement country-of-origin labeling of meat and food products, a pet project of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and other northern tier populists. Congress included this provision in the 2002 farm bill but has had enough second thoughts that it has delayed implementation until 2006. Daschle has called the labeling mandate the "patriotic" thing to do, but the way the record-keeping burden of the provision is structured, it will simply provide an incentive for countries like Canada to export meat, rather than live animals, to the U.S. market.

Kerry is handicapped in his effort to win farm country by his "tin ear" for the tone of the agriculture economy. The packer ownership ban and the country of origin labeling mandate, for example, were products of a commodity price deflation a few years ago. Now the markets are up; the rural economy is good. Bush surrogates, like USDA Secretary Ann Veneman, can recite a litany of stats: record net cash farm income in 2003, record beef prices, record milk prices, projected record gross sales of farm products at $215 billion for 2004, projected record agricultural exports at $61.5 billion for 2004, record levels of equity on farm balance sheets.

Much of Kerry's agriculture policy agenda lays bare a lack of knowledge of the modern commercial farm economy, not only on the part of the candidate, but also, one must conclude, of his entire team of advisers as well. Perhaps that is not surprising for a man who was once Michael Dukakis's lieutenant governor. Remember then-candidate Dukakis's remark in Iowa during the 1988 presidential campaign that corn growers there should do what Massachusetts farmers did to boost profits: produce Belgian endive? The entire U.S. demand for endive is satisfied by about 3,000 acres. Iowa has about 37 million acres of farm land. And right now, they are all pretty profitable.

Dave Juday is an agricultural commodity market analyst.