As he works to get his crops planted, the weather keeps Illinois farmer Gerald Thompson in his fields during the day.
Worrying about the political direction of his country is what often keeps him up at night.
“To me, we are in such a dysfunctional state,” he said as he stands between his green John Deere tractor and the planter attached to it that help him get his seeds into the ground.
Worried about Congress
Thompson says he is not upset with President Donald Trump, the candidate he voted for in the 2016 general election.
“I think Trump is a good businessman and he’ll see the value in what agriculture has to offer,” he said.
But Thompson is among a majority of Americans who disapprove of the performance of the U.S. Congress.
“Until we get rid of 90 percent of the politicians, put in term limits and put people there that actually go to work for the right reasons, we’re going to have problems,” he told VOA.
Agricultural Act of 2014
The 2016 presidential election was largely shaped by rural and working class voters in a part of the country sometimes called “flyover country,” the interior of America where many felt overlooked by their elected lawmakers. What fuels a large part of the economy in flyover country, where Thompson’s home and farmland are located in rural Bellflower, Illinois, is agriculture. Here, the Agricultural Act of 2014, the most recent Farm Bill, is a key piece of legislation.
“It’s provided somewhat of a safety net,” Thompson said.
The Farm Bill is the single biggest piece of legislation that impacts his livelihood, and Thompson knows that the politicians he is critical of now will be the ones he will have to depend on to craft a new Farm Bill by 2018.
The Farm Bill that became law in 2014 provided nearly $500 billion of federal funding overall.
“Eighty percent of the farm bill is food and nutrition programs and rural development,” Thompson said, referring to the U.S. Government’s SNAP — or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called the Food Stamp Program — that provides assistance to millions with little or no income. “Twenty percent of the total amount of the Farm Bill goes to farmers,” Thompson said.
Part of that assistance includes reimbursement for certain conservation efforts and assistance with securing crop insurance. In previous Farm Bills, much of what farmers received was by direct payments.
“The amount of dollars that come back to us in the form of direct payments is so insignificant today as a percent of our total budget, it needs to be gotten away with, in my opinion, because I believe it’s a political challenge for us to defend that,” Thompson said.
The last Farm Bill significantly cut those direct payments, instead subsidizing and expanding crop insurance.
“So far the loss of direct payments hasn’t been that big of a deal,” said Kirkwood, Illinois, farmer Wendell Shauman. “Time will tell. We ebb and flow in this. Back in the ’80s it was a huge deal. Basically our income was what we got from the government. That’s a sad time in agriculture and we certainly don’t want to go back to that situation again.”
While Shauman agrees with ending direct payments, it could have provided recent relief.
Supplies are high, prices low
“We’re buried in corn and beans, prices are so low. The farm economy’s been so bad I think this will be the fourth year in a row where farm income has gone down,” he said.
Shauman is in a race against time, and the weather, to get the last of his soybeans planted. As he steadily guides his tractor through dusty fields he hopes will produce abundant corn and soybeans later this year, he is just as concerned about the crops he harvested last year, which are stored in his grain bins.
“The price has been so low, so long, people have held on hoping it’s going to get better,” he told VOA. “And in the last couple of weeks it’s gotten even worse.”
The price of corn today is just less than $4 a bushel, down from a high of more than $8 a bushel at the peak of the drought in 2012. While the current price is higher than average over the last 50 years, that’s no solace to struggling farmers.
“The difference today is the cost of production we incur is so much greater that even though we are at historically high levels, our margins are still very, very thin,” Gerald Thompson said. “They look to project this year’s net farm income to be about half of what it was four years ago.”
Stagnant grain prices, high quantities in storage, and no direct Farm Bill payments form the basis of the agricultural landscape lawmakers and farmers face as they begin negotiating a new Farm Bill. Despite the economic outlook, Shauman expects further cuts.
“Politically, we have very little clout,” Shauman said.
Bad weather could be good
But Thomson says the lack of clout in Washington isn’t the biggest issue for him.
“Your biggest risk factor is something you have no control over, which is the weather,” he said as he battled the dust and heat to finish the last of his major tasks of getting his corn and soybeans planted.
But in a twist of irony, bad weather could be the thing that helps farmers.
“A short crop this year — and it wouldn’t have to be a terribly short crop — would raise the price considerably,” he said.
But just like the weather, a short crop isn’t something Wendell Shauman can count on. But he hopes the Farm Bill is, which is why he wants whatever legislation to take shape by 2018 ultimately help keep him in business when everything else a farmer can’t control is working against him.