A steady column of plain-clothed farmers filled aisles and expressed concerns about the future of their businesses Thursday to the man who could change farm policy.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns listened to dozens of farmers, ranchers and growers discuss what they called an increasingly bleak future during an open forum at Eastern Washington University. Johanns has been touring the country looking for input before crafting the 2007 Farm Bill.
“While I’ve studied and taught agricultural history and am familiar with the tough times of the past, I’ve never seen prospects as low as they are today,” said Alex McGregor, a wheat grower and fertilizer-business owner in Hooper, Wash. “We’re losing three or four farm families in many communities this winter. Slowing this exodus and providing some hope has to be job number one.”
Johanns sat on stage with Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., and listened as farmers from across Washington brought up several concerns, ranging from loan problems to conservation programs to free trade.
But a common thread ran through most comments: the family farm is in danger of being lost if the government doesn’t help.
“You are looking at room full of endangered species: farmers,” said Gretchen Borck, issues director for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.
One man addressed a group of students in the Future Farmers of America program who were seated near the stage and said, “If nothing changes and we stay on the path we are on today, we’ll have to tell these kids they didn’t join the FFA, they joined the HFA: History of Farmers in America.”
Many expressed concern over the disparity in subsidies between different countries, which they say creates an unfair environment for farmers.
“We are competing in a world market and we need to be competing on an equal level,” said Art Schultheis, chairman of the state Turfgrass Seed Commission.
The comments are important to forming a new Farm Bill in 2007, Johanns said.
“They’re really pointing out some things that are working and some things that are not working,” said the cabinet secretary, who was appointed by President Bush in January.
“This has been a great forum, and this has been really helpful,” he said.