Sketching a scenario familiar to Eastern Washington, Yellowstone Valley farmer Keith Schott told President Clinton of life in a four-income family Thursday.
He and his wife Karen drive a school bus route. She also runs a computer consulting business while he hauls grain north of Billings.
Farming is yet another source of income, if you want to call it that.
“You have to love it now or you won’t do it,” he said. “There’s no money in it.”
But do it he does, wondering all the while what is to become of a 29-year-old breaking into the business just as Congress is threatening to rewrite farm legislation that accounts for one-third of his income.
At a time when farmers complain of mounting problems and dwindling political clout, Schott and several central Montana farmers received a rare and valuable audience with the president.
Eastern Washington wheat growers could hardly have selected a better proxy to present their views.
But on the matter about which they most wanted to hear - money - the president was noncommittal.
He said there will probably be deeper cuts than farmers want - which is no cuts at all - but hopefully less than currently planned by Republican congressional forces.
“The issue is not only how much are we going to spend,” he added, “but how are we going to spend it.”
On that score, he proposed an assistance program aimed at lowering the financial hurdles of first-time farmers like Schott.
He also spoke of replacing some farm regulations with more generalized environmental “standards” and urged the farmers themselves to help set the priorities for the Farm Bill.
Farm policy aside, Clinton’s 26-hour visit to Montana was also about public relations and folksy rural politics.
Visiting Les Auer’s 7,000 farm after horseback riding at a nearby equestrian center, the president wore lizard-skin boots, jeans and a green Montana Grain Growers Association cap.
The setting, laid out before an 18-wheel-flatbed loaded with local and national reporters, was rich enough for a country music video.
Clinton sat with Sen. Max Baucus and a dozen or so farmers and ranchers in a semi-circle of picnic tables. Hay bales sat conspicuously at each end. The backdrop: a tractor and seeder, a weathered wood-rail fence and a bank of clouds stretched wide across the Big Sky horizon.
The topography was a far cry from Washington’s Palouse, with broad flat swatches of cropland set below piney rimrocks and distant, snowy peaks.
But the farming is remarkably similar: white wheat, barley, low rainfall, a dependence on exports and few alternative crops.
“We and Ritzville are probably very comparable,” said Bill Brinkel, a former Gonzaga University student and Karen Schott’s father.
As in Eastern Washington, grain growers here also depend heavily on green government checks to boost incomes and reimburse them for idled acres and conservationminded farming practices. Some 18,000 farmers here participate in farm programs, receiving nearly $200 million in wheat and barley subsidies in 1993. Montana enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave erodible land uncultivated, cost taxpayers another $100 million that year.
The Clinton administration has proposed $1.5 billion in unspecified farm program cuts over five years, while the House and Senate are looking at cuts approaching $9 billion over the same period.
Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year expects to pay farmers $10 billion. As Clinton noted, the spending is dramatically less - less than half, actually - than what farmers received nine years ago.
Meanwhile, Clinton argued, farmers will export $50 billion of goods this year, contributing about $20 billion to the nation’s $100-plus billion trade deficit.
“We need to look at the agricultural issue in light of how you live here and the importance to the United States of this massive economic strength,” he said. “… Every person in the country has benefited by what you do by having the cheapest, best food in the world and also by having an enormous economic weapon in a global economy.”
His remarks brought varying reactions.
Keith Schott felt assured Clinton would fight to minimize the cuts. It seemed to help that he had already resigned himself to some cuts taking place. Karen and he said they are already looking at expanding their unsubsidized cattle operation to fill in where grain subsidies leave off.
“We don’t want cuts,” he said, “but we’ve got to face the music. It’s going to happen.”
Steven Heiken, another farmer who sat in on the 35-minute farm discussion and a private barbecue lunch afterwards, wondered just what role Clinton would have as the Farm Bill is hammered out.
“I’m not sure he’s going to have that much to do with it, that much say,” he said. “He’s certainly easy to talk to, though.”
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Eric Sorensen Staff writer Staff writer Grayden Jones contributed to this report.
Click here to comment on this story »