“So what did this place cost?” he asked.
I was taken aback. I was meeting with a contractor to talk
about doing some work to my recently-purchased house in Peru, Ill.
“None of your damned business,” is what I wanted to say.
“Enough,” was what I did say.
Now, in all fairness and in looking back, the question,
probably, was casual, making conversation. But it’s not exactly the question you
expect from a stranger, let alone a stranger who potentially might be doing some
business with you.
Numbers, especially the numbers that are personal to us, are
not something any of us like to talk about. But numbers, especially the numbers
that are personal to us, are maybe something that needs to be talked about more
If you’re living under a rock, you probably haven’t followed
the last few days and weeks of the debate over the House version of the farm
bill and the many amendments that accompanied it.
One of the biggest bones of contention — and most highly
publicized debates — was the one over proposed reforms to the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program and the one over an amendment that would limit crop
insurance premiums based on the adjusted gross income of farmers.
As it has been made out by the more-numerous supporters of
SNAP and the nutrition titles versus the less-numerous and far less vocal
supporters of crop insurance, it’s the “rich farmers versus starving children”
But even as agriculture does the 1960s Cuban missile
crisis-era duck and cover, that debate isn’t going away anytime soon. So we have
to ask ourselves — do we really want it to?
I’m a firm believer that if you want to kill a couple of
birds with a very effective stone, those who can do this need to print out the
SNAP-eligible foods list and start crossing off items with a ruthless red pen.
“But the starving children – you will be taking food out of
the mouths of hungry kids, you evil, heartless capitalist pig!”
When obesity has just been recognized as a disease by the
American Medical Association, when there are 10 year olds and 12 year olds
walking around who weigh as much as a healthy adult male of average height,
anything anywhere that anyone can do to help reduce childhood obesity is a
When a person can walk into the corner gas station and
purchase Pop-Tarts and a liter bottle of soda, when someone can stroll into a
supermarket and buy a case of Pepsi and the Econo-Pak of peanut butter cups, all
of those with SNAP, then I don’t think the argument that eliminating those items
from SNAP eligibility holds any water.
Colored sugar water in the form of “fruit juice” maybe. But
not real water.
I’m no expert in child nutrition, but I know enough about
human nutrition to know that many of the things I see moms with kids on SNAP
purchasing in the checkout lines don’t go far toward either sustainable
nutrition or preventing a generation of video-game-playing, couch-bound kids
from packing on the pounds before seventh grade.
Feeding kids gas-station Pop-Tarts and $1.19 Big Slurps or
two-for-$2 bottles of pop can’t lend itself in any way to anything close to
Every time the issue of reforming SNAP comes up, the Food
and Resource Action Center cosponsors the SNAP Challenge, which provides an
excellent grandstanding opportunity for politicians to pander to their
low-income constituencies by eating on a budget of $4.50 per day, FRAC’s
reckoning of the average SNAP-recipient’s food budget.
This year, on Twitter, several individuals, including
@emzanotti and @Mommy4Cocktails, became fed up with the SNAP sob stories, took
the SNAP Challenge and, actually, ate quite well on the allotted budget. It’s
worth a follow, if you’re on Twitter.
With the notion of snatching food from starving children
taken care of, let’s address the first part of that phrase — rich farmers.
OK, there are wealthy farmers. But for every supposedly rich
farmer, those who own large amounts of land and equally large bottles of black
ink, there are the guys who are making like baby ducks — making it look smooth
on top, but paddling like hell underneath.
This past week, in Dixon, I attended the market outlook
presentation by Dr. Steve Johnson of Iowa State University.
During that presentation, he gave the ISU early 2013 crop
cost estimates. These are averages of what it costs to get a crop in the ground
and what farmers need to make per bushel to break even.
The corn-after-corn numbers per acre were: $276 in land and
rent costs; $369 per acre in inputs, including seed and fertilizer; $147 in
machinery costs; and $35 in labor costs — for a total cost per acre of $827 with
an expected yield of 165 bushels per acre and cost per bushel of $5.01. That’s
what it costs on average, per ISU, to put a crop in the ground.
Prior to that information, Johnson told the audience of
farmers from Lee and Whiteside counties what anyone with a car, a map of Iowa
and Illinois and eyes already knows — that a fair amount of the crop that those
farmers paid to put in the ground won’t produce grain that will be harvested,
especially in Iowa and Minnesota.
The cost to put that crop in the ground doesn’t mention or
take into account the fact that farmers also have to do things the rest of us
do, such as pay property taxes on their houses, pay for lights and heat and air
conditioning, buy groceries, pay for health insurance and try to find a way to
put some money aside for retirement.
I ran the idea of sharing the real costs of farming past a
farmer friend of mine, who was readily agreeable to sharing some numbers with
“I think it’s a side that needs to be shared. If we want
people to understand, we need to be forthcoming. We expect other businesses and
industries to share their earnings reports and their expenses, so why should we
be different?” the farmer said. “The public has no clue.”
This farmer is involved in a family grain and livestock
farming operation in Illinois. The farmer doesn’t work off the farm, so that
means they bear their health insurance cost themselves. That number is $750 per
month on a plan that has a $10,000 deductible, no drug limited co-pay, no dental
and no eye care.
Essentially, like many people who pay for employer-sponsored
healthcare nowadays, it’s catastrophic care coverage, except without all the
side benefits, such as drug co-pays and dental care, that the non-ag public
enjoys through their employer healthcare.
This farmer also told me that they don’t have a farm-wide
retirement plan. Essentially, each person involved in this family farming
operation is responsible for making their own plans for retirement, and this
farmer has done that with a financial adviser.
Farm budgets not only have to provide for the items detailed
in the ISU numbers, but for all the things that the non-ag public has to pay
for, as well, including payments on those giant pieces of equipment and those
new pickup trucks.
That’s what those who are involved with and close to farming
see and know. But in order for the public to see that, in order for the public
to see that real-life farming is a challenge, too, they have to be able to see
some of the real numbers — above and beyond the land-grant university averages —
The public knows, by the numbers, how tough it is to live on
the SNAP Challenge. What they need to learn, by the numbers, is how tough it is
to live on the “Farm Challenge.”