Friday, May 20, 2011

Show Time! The 2011 National Grange Legislative Fly-In is here!

We’ve finally made it! This coming week, from Sunday the 22nd to Tuesday the 24th, the National Grange Legislative Department will be hosting our annual Legislative Fly-In here in Washington D.C.! We are very excited and have planned some exceptional events aimed at re-igniting Grangers’ commitments to an active citizen government. Setting the tone of leadership, we’ll begin by touring George and Martha Washington’s beautiful Mt. Vernon Estate in Virginia, after which we will be dropped off on Capitol Hill for each attendee to meet with their elected representatives. Later that evening, our members will be having dinner at a local hot spot with our guest speaker, Scott LaGanga, Deputy Vice President of Federal Alliance Development and Public Affairs at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), to learn about how the Affordable Care Act implementation is progressing. On Tuesday, activities start with breakfast and an issue briefing by John Blanchfield, Senior Vice President for the Center for Agricultural and Rural Banking. After more congressional visits, Tuesday’s lunch will be hosted by AT&T at their Innovation Center in Washington D.C., where our members will be briefed on Telehealth and how it is changing the face of rural healthcare.

The Legislative Department looks forward to our annual Fly-In for several reasons, but primarily because it grants our members the opportunity for face-to-face communication with their representatives in Congress. It takes many phone calls, emails, and faxes but the Grange Legislative Department does its best to arrange meetings for all our attendees, allowing them to sit and speak with their representatives and/or their staff to discuss pressing issues facing Grange Halls across America.

While scheduling appointments, we are honored to witness the name recognition that the Grange still enjoys. Having been founded in 1867, the Grange is one of the oldest lobbies in Washington and still maintains a presence in the world of agricultural and rural politics. Hosting an annual Legislative Fly-In only serves as a reminder that Grangers are still committed to celebrating their citizenship and engaging with their government on behalf of their communities. I’d like to extend a very special thanks to everyone who helped with the Fly-In, be it in donations or packing envelopes. Your efforts and support help carry on the Grange name and our worthy cause. See you soon everybody!

Grace Boatright
National Grange Programs Assistant

Friday, March 4, 2011

Cutting the Congressional Commodity Crisis

On July 21, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Act. The bill, proposed by Congressman Barney Frank and Senator Chris Dodd, and so named, came as a result of the 2008 financial meltdown and seeks to implement new regulatory reforms to the financial services industry, aka- Wall Street. Reform in this case has meant greater transparency in the markets, tougher standards on fraud manipulation, more authority over insider trading, and greater protection for whistle blowers. Overall, the question became: what is sufficient manipulation/regulation to ensure sound pricing without the cost outweighing the benefits? Sounds pretty straightforward right? Well…not so much. Though unlikely to receive funding due to increasing budget cuts, the Act would have had numerous effects on agriculture.

Primarily, the Act could affect agriculture by addressing “commodity swaps” and giving a precise definition of a “commodity.” Commodity swaps are typically used as a hedging device to protect one’s self against the rising or falling price of a commodity. For example, say a company buys a lot of oil. This company can buy a contract, or pay a premium, for the legal right to purchase oil at a fixed price for a certain amount of time. This could potentially save them millions in the long run, making the premium paid for those contracts seem like nothing. Dodd-Frank has repealed all exemptions granted to security-based swaps. Though the exact terms aren’t yet clear, Title VII states; “Except as provided otherwise, no Federal assistance may be provided to any swaps entity with respect to any swap, security-based swap, or other activity of the swaps entity" (Thomas).

This mandate could affect farming cooperatives if the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) decides to define them as swap dealers rather than farm cooperatives and thus subjecting them to the regulations and capital requirements imposed on swap dealers. This could have dramatic impacts on people such as dairy farmers by hindering their ability to manage the risk of falling milk prices and rising production costs, a risk that could usually be transferred to a swap dealer through a commodity swap. A solution to this problem would be to term cooperatives, such as Dairy Farmers of America, as end-users rather than swap dealers, and exempting agricultural cooperatives altogether. Clearly, definitions become incredibly important at this point, and are primarily left to the discretion of the CFTC. Before this Act, “commodities” wasn’t so much a noun as it was a reference to a group of investment securities; some popular ones being oil, coffee, corn, cotton, and pork bellies. Without a precise definition, it will be much harder to know who to exempt and who to impose regulations on. Consequently, without exemption, growers will have to assume the financial risk associated with commodity price fluctuations, leaving America’s farmers incredibly vulnerable.

Having a degree in finance, I was eager to right this blog, and found it fairly easy to do so. However, what I could never have comprehended a year ago is the far reaching impact imposed legislation could have on the different sectors of America. In this instance, a bill directed at keeping Wall Street honest could have come back to wreak havoc on America’s farmers and agricultural communities. Let's hope that the current budget cuts end up eliminating funding for the Dodd-Frank Act, otherwise we could find ourselves paying more for a gallon of milk than a barrel of oil.

-Grace Boatright
National Grange Program Assistant


Celebrating Women’s History Month

Since the Grange began, it has strived to support equality for women within the Grange and in their communities. The Grange let it be known how important women were to the agricultural community by declaring that no Grange could be formed without at least four women. Four officer’s positions could and still can only be held by women, giving women an equal vote in the organization. March is Women’s History Month and we as Grangers should be celebrating our proud history and Grange women of past and present. Caroline Hall, Temperance Kelley, Eva McDowell, Jennie Buell, Jeanne C. Carr, Eliza Gifford, Sarah G. Baird, Mary Mayo, and Eleanor Roosevelt are some names you will easily recognize. All of these women have affected the Grange and the world. Which of these women do you know? Caroline Hall, the Grange’s eighth founder, contributed money, compiled one of the first Grange songbooks, handled the organizational work, and served as the first Ceres, created for women only. Temperance Kelley, who gave her husband, Oliver Kelley, enough money to continue with organizing the Grange, encouraged his dream of creating a fraternal organization for farmers. Eva McDowell served as Treasurer of the National Grange for twenty-six years. Maybe the name that stands out to you most is Sarah G. Baird, the first woman to be a State Master. She became State Master of Minnesota in 1895 and would stay in that position for seventeen years. Eliza Gifford and Jennie Buell were outspoken Grangers who fought for women’s suffrage with Susan B. Anthony, leader of NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Association) and campaigned with Frances Willard, the leader of the WCTU (Woman’s Christian Temperance Union), in support of temperance legislation. Jeanne C. Carr helped to found the California State Grange, was one of the first women to run for Lecturer of the California State Grange, and campaigned to keep women’s suffrage an issue in California and the State Grange behind the issue. Mary Mayo wrote for the Michigan Grange newspaper, spoke publicly on behalf of the Grange, helped recruit members, strength the order, and served as the chair for the Michigan State Grange Women’s Committee for fourteen years. And last but not least, Eleanor Roosevelt; First Lady of the United States was a Grange member for over 25 years. This is just a small part of women’s history within the Grange. Learn more about these women and others and honor them not only during Women’s History Month but throughout the whole year.

Samantha Johnson
-Sales, Benefits,& Programs Director

Friday, February 25, 2011

Recipe for Disaster

Yesterday afternoon, after getting some projects out the door for the National Grange State Master’s Meeting, I decided that I had let my snail-mail cubby in our supply room fill up to an embarrassing level and it was time to get the letter opener out. In the collection of invoices and political newsletters was a lovely hand-addressed #10 envelope from a Wib Justi, from the National Junior Horticultural Association in Ohio.

The envelop contained an article from the February 2011 Issue of Country Living which detailed a certain M.A. Fox’s search for the perfect pie and how pie had become this individual’s medium for connecting with the past, and all other things inherited. The talented author of the piece points out how very difficult it is to make a perfect pie. How the components must be in perfect measure, with precise process and collaboration.

Unfortunately, in my warped, politically-charged brain, it made me think of this little situation we have inherited in Washington right now as we sit on the eve of a possible government shut-down. Now, in some cases, nostalgia can be just as detrimental to one’s soul as it can be restorative. However, sometimes taking a walk down memory lane is just what is needed to avoid making political mistakes of the past.

The federal government has shut-down 15 times since 1977, but the government shut-down that is the freshest in most folk’s memories is the one that resulted from the stand-off between President Bill Clinton and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The shut-down, which was the longest in history, lasted 21 days and occurred over the Christmas holidays. The two Clinton-era government shut-downs resulted in a gross furlough of over 1 million federal employees and countless contractors.

During the 1995-96 shutdowns, the unemployment rate was about 5.5% and today it currently hovers just under 10%. I don’t think this is the fat that we need to be trimming. Is sending a bunch of people home from work really the message we want to send to our unemployed? When the U.S. government tells small businesses to reinvest in their companies and hire more staff to energize the economy, yet can’t play well enough with others to do so itself, it speaks with a forked tongue.

I am the first to jump on the bandwagon of tightening our fiscal belt but I am not sure that shutting down the federal government leads by example or achieves the financial relief that so many are lead to believe. I don’t believe that the following is the recipe for a balanced budget:

2 Chambers diametrically oppose
1 White House that doesn’t even want to address the current FY2011 budget
1 The largest employer in the United States shutting down
1 The highest sustained unemployment rate since the Great Depression

PS: In the article from Country Living cited earlier in this blog, the Grange is noted for having the best of all country auction food stands (and pies). Maybe Grangers hold the best of all recipes.

- Nicole Palya Wood
National Grange Legislative Director

Friday, February 18, 2011

Show Me the Money

Congress is currently addressing the daunting task of drafting the 2012 federal budget, a major issue given their new drive to cut federal spending and reduce the deficit. The current budget is set to expire March 4, forcing Congress to draft some sort of spending bill just to keep the government operating. On Monday, President Obama issued his own proposals for the 2012, $3.7 trillion budget, and so far, his recommendations have been met with some harsh sentiment from Congress. Obama’s proposals include cutting $350 million from the Community Development Block Program, reducing the EPA’s funding by $1.3 billion, and reducing Pell grant funding for college students. Simultaneously, he intends to increase funding for projects like his high-speed railway system, set to cost an astounding $53 billion.

Republicans see Obama’s budget as a feeble attempt to reduce government spending as they propose over $60 billion in reductions for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year. "This is business as usual at a time when bold, creative solutions are needed. This is not an I-got-the-message budget,” says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Republicans have their own ideas for reducing government spending, including blocking federal aid to Planned Parenthood, reducing EPA funding by nearly $3 billion, and banning Pentagon dollars from sponsoring NASCAR teams, an expense most Americans are appalled to learn existed in the first place. As for foreign spending, the Defense Department’s budget has already been reduced by $78 billion over the next 5 years, and the Pentagon is now threatening that an additional reduction in funding could affect weapons programs, limit training, maintenance, and even payroll for personnel. Obviously, with 47,000 troops still in Iraq, protecting defense spending should become a priority for Congressional leaders.

Programs like the Market Access Program (MAP) are also on the chopping block. Representative Scott Garret (R-NJ) is proposing to eliminate the program, created in 1985 and currently sustained at $200 million annually, which helps to create and maintain foreign markets for U.S. agricultural goods. Under Obama’s budget, funding for the Agriculture Department would be reduced by $3.2 billion, mostly affecting direct farm payments and subsidies to high-income farmers. Rural home loan programs and wetlands conservation programs would also be subject to a reduction in funding. The Obama administration claims this would save $2.5 billion over the next 10 years. On Monday, the Agricultural Department estimated that net farm income would exceed over $95 billion this year (Brasher). That’s a 20% increase from 2010. Let’s hope their right, because with so many farming programs becoming a target for funding cuts, an increase in income might be the only thing to keep American farmers afloat.

From the looks of things, nobody will escape the wrath of government spending cuts, from the Pentagon to American farmers. A current deficit of over $14 trillion, unemployment at 9.8%, and no end in sight, a reduction in spending is just what the country needs. Both sides seem to have mixed views on how to make that happen, but in Congress’ defense, I have a hard time balancing my checkbook, let alone billions of dollars spread over hundreds of programs with thousands of individuals pining for assistance. We better know the outcome before March 4, or we wont have a government to worry about.

-Grace Boatright
National Grange Program Assistant

Brasher, Philip. “Vilsack calls subsidy cuts for large farms affordable.” 15 February 2011. Web. 18 February 2011.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Stealing from Landline and Giving to Broadband ….The Robin Hood Story for Today’s Rural America?

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to re-task the $8.7 billion Universal Service Fund (USF) monies to address mobile broadband in rural areas and those without high-speed internet access. The move would cut federal subsidies to landline service providers and invest those funds towards mobile and fixed broadband internet services. Echoing this announcement, President Obama was in Michigan on Thursday when he announced his National Wireless Initiative, which aims to expand wireless coverage to 98% of Americans.

Established in the 1990’s, the USF was created to insure that phone service was available to all Americans in all of its far-reaching realms. Today, billions still flow into the USF. Both traditional landline and mobile phone service providers pay into the USF by way of a small user fee assessed on their customers. These fees then pay for the telephone service to customers in rural, sparsely populated or areas with rough terrain where the service is more expensive to provide.

Why the switch? In 1990, the average household relied on a landline as their number one source for communication, but today, cell phones, Skype and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) have created new alternatives and magnified a broadband divide between urban and rural communities. The President thinks he has the answer to bridging the gap by retooling the use of the USF to satisfy the growing need for all Americans to have universal access to broadband.

How big of a boost is this for rural America? Huge. How likely is this to happen? Pretty darn good if the experts wrapped around the axel on speed and deployment don’t get in the way. The President has committed to, and now has a very large fund to pay for, the build-out of broadband. Plus, there are 94 shiny new freshman in Congress who ran on little else but creating jobs and cutting spending. I am not sure if it is our Sputnik moment, but it sure sounds like the awful fax-like, record-scratching sound of dial-up could become a relic of the past.

There is no greater technology available today that can do so much to change the lives of rural Americans. Having access to affordable broadband is the key to opening the doors of businesses, providing virtual marketplaces, tapping into the convenience of tele-health and in general staying competitive no matter where you live. The connectivity to healthcare, jobs, on-line educations, and markets can help repopulate rural areas, slow down the brain drain and give hope to Americans who are desperately trying to keep their hometowns alive. It may not restore what many of us remember as “Main Street U.S.A.” but it definitely gives us the tools to reinvent it. After all, the idea of “Main Street U.S.A.” doesn’t need to go away, it just needs to evolve.

-Nicole Palya Wood
Legislative Director

Monday, January 31, 2011

Farm Bill Blues

As the Republican-led House settles into their Washington duties, topics such as the 2012 Farm Bill are coming into discussion. Since the November elections, several changes have occurred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry that are sure to have an impact on the provisions of the 2012 Farm Bill. For starters, as previously expected, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) took over as Chair, and Pat Roberts (R-KS) took over as the Ranking Member. Stabenow has a strong background in agricultural, as her first bill as a member of the House was the Wheat and Barley Protection Act of 1997. Roberts also has a strong agricultural background, with a particular focus on wheat production. John Boozeman (R-AR) and John Hoeven (R-ND) also joined the committee. Hoeven’s assignment will allow North Dakota to join Iowa and Nebraska, two of the largest producers of corn and soybeans, in having two members on the committee. Several changes have been made to the House Agriculture Committee as well, including Frank Lucas (R-OK) becoming chairman. In the past, Lucas has been a strong supporter of safety net programs, as well as conservation programs aimed at helping farmers maintain their land.

Issues sure to influence the construction of the 2012 Farm Bill include budget allocations, farming subsidies, and the Brazilian cotton conflict. Obviously, with Congress on a mission to cut spending, agricultural subsidies, commodity programs, environmental programs, and crop insurance programs are in danger of reduction. Tara Smith, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation stated; “38 programs in the 2008 Farm Bill have absolutely no budget. If we want to continue those programs…money will have to be taken from someone else to do it” (Smith). In fact, these 38 programs would require about $9 billion in funding; a large sum which will be hard to squeeze from other programs. In addition, Rich Pottorff, chief economist and Washington editor of Doane Agricultural Services reminded us that; “budget issues totaling about $4.5 billion were sidestepped in the 2008 Farm Bill by shifting the timing of payments for some programs, and Congress won’t be able to do that again” (Pottorff ). All of this comes at a time when farming subsidies are surfacing as a popular choice for budget cuts. Many argue they are a financial burden American taxpayers can do without, claiming they only benefit the large-scale farms that don’t need the assistance or are spent on lands no longer used for farming.

As for problems abroad, in 2009, the WTO approved a Brazilian ban on U.S. cotton after Brazil’s claim that U.S. cotton subsidies were illegal under WTO guidelines. U.S. negotiators agreed to pay the Brazilian government $147 million on an annual basis to what is now called the Brazilian Cotton Farmers Fund. In light of the agreement, the Brazilian government agreed to drop all trade sanctions against various U.S. industries. Bringing our cotton policies into compliance will surely be addressed in the new Farm Bill, as the United States surely cannot afford to waste $147 million a year.

Unfortunately, the new Farm Bill cannot be constructed by crossing out the numbers from the old 2008 bill and replacing them with new figures. New Committee members and a new political environment, both domestically and abroad, are certain to have a large impact on devising and passing the new 2012 Farm Bill. With the juggernaut being created by the Obama Administration’s call for system-wide program cuts and the newly elected House of Representatives demanding fiscal restraint, the next farm bill will have to either very creative or very skinny.

Pottorff, Rich. “Budget Problems Confront 2012 Farm Bill.” 22 September 2010. Web.
31 January 2011.

Smith, Tara. “Budget Concerns will Overshadow 2012 Farm Bill.” 24 January 2011. Web.
28 January 2011.

Grace Boatright
National Grange Program Assitant