'Farming of Washington' irks ranchers
For father and son cattle-ranching team Wayne and Jim Jenkins, it is easy to see why farmers have been marching on Washington -- and why there have won strong farm-policy planks in both the Republican and Democratic party platforms this year.
"Instead of farming their farms," Wayne Jenkins says abruptly, "these people are farming Washington."
With 2,700 acres of pasture and hay fields in Oconto, Nebr., Wayne says the farmers who complain about hard times have reaped a bountiful harvest of "government handouts." He insists that the complainer who make headlines and lead tractorcades to the nation's capital are a small minority of farmers and do an injustice to the more representative ones who are self-supporting and proud of it.
"I've got a friend down here who paid for his farm four times over with government checks," says Wayne. This neighbor and others like him are the sort, Wayne feels, "who tell the government to get out of farming and who complain about other people living on welfare."
Agricultural economist Roy Frederick, with the Extension Service at Kansas State University, takes a different view. "If we go back to some of the heavily subsidized farm programs, such as the soil bank program in the 50s and 60s, we did have farmers, in effect, farming the government programs," he says. However , the explains that current federal programs have been redesigned -- with the result that "scientific studies we have done this past summer indicate that government payments have not, in fact, been a major part of either the gross or net income of farmers, on the average."
Yet Professor Frederick adds that "the Congress of the United States, and particularly the Senate, still are responsive to whatever the cries of anguish happen to be from the farm sector."
He thinks certain sectors, such as the dairy industry and grain farmers, have won government supports because they demanded them -- while other groups, such as ranchers with equal or greater risks in their farming operations, "are willing to take the ups and downs" and so have not sought government support programs.
The problem, Roy Frederick believes, is that while there may be no more inherent need for dairy or grain price supports than for beef prices supports, "once the tradition is established, it is very hard to live without it."
Jim Jenkins, still in his early 20s, feels that traditional reliance on government support is firmly established in his area -- at the expense of the farmer.
When he travels from Oconto (pop. 155) in central Nebraska to nearby Callaway (pop. 523), Jim says, "You go into the general feed store where they sit around complaining, and then you see how much new farm equipment they've bought. We have farmers all around us going broke and wondering why." These farmers are in trouble, he maintains, because "they don't even try to pencil their costs out."
Too often, Wayne Jenkins and his son see farmers plowing deeper and deeper into debt. They see farmers talked into overextending themselves.
Most farmers, the Jenkinses say, are too busy to find time to do their own market research and must rely instead on advice from salesmen for hybrid seeds, fertilizers, insecticides, hericides, and expensive farm equipment. The Jenkinses know that such salesmen can be very convincing.
The result, says Wayne Jenkins, is that some of his neighbors have planted corn for 25 years without a break, trying desperately to increase yields each year in order to raise enough cash to pay off their bank creditors.
Jim adds that "There is not anybody out there giving you free technical advice; it is all aimed at long-term dependency on their products."
Neighbors have repeatedly advised Wayne and Jim to switch their fields over to corn, as most others in the area have done. But father and son are agreed on keeping most of their land in pasture -- although the farming part of their operation produces the largest cash hay crop in the area, making them full-time farmers as well as ranchers.
Overintensive farming "burns up your humus," Wayne believes. "We don't realize how we are mining the soil for the almighty dollar."
Other farmers call for an end to government "overregulation" and in the same breath demand the government provide better price supports, storage loans, and disaster payments. The Jenkins family's Boblits Ranch turns over "a comfortable profit" without accepting any government payments and supports tougher federal regulations to protect the nation's water and soil resources.
What is the difference that allows the Jenkins family farm to succeed without government support?
"When prices get low, they all go running to Washington," Wayne says. "The only reason I'm still here is that, like my grandfather and my father, I hedge against these things. I look for droughts . . . We've had hay way down below the cost of production, but then the next year it gets better."
Jim points out that with his interest in the family ranch and with land prices steadily climbing, "I have a tremendous amount of borrowing power." But borrowing would make the Jenkins ranch as vulnerable to abd years as its neighboring farms. So in an area sparkling with "new automobiles, new tractors, new pickups," Wayne says, "I went for 10 years without buying a new car."
He does not think his old-fashioned approach hurts the ranch. Where neighbors have stretched to buy the latest 150 horsepower tractor, Wayne reports: "I bought as $16,500 tractor last spring -- 80 horsepower -- and you can farm a lot of land with that. It took me a long time to save up the money."
Wayne Jenkins has the same respect for soil as for money: "Land is just like your bank account -- you can't take it all out and not put any back." He believes in looking after his soil through careful crop rotation, absolute minimal use of chemicals and irrigation, and letting the earthworms "work their hearts out for you in the soil" by not killing them with artificial fertilizers.
Wayne Jenkins says he is "showing a nice net profit and leaving the land better when I leave than when I got it." that approach helps explain why his son Jim has set out to familiarize himself with the workings of grain dealers in Chicago and the policymakers in Washington.
Jim Jenkins is confident that there will be a good ranch to return to in Nebraska. While waiting his rutn, he wants to find out more about marketing. And he hopes to help Congress understand what it is like on a Nebraska ranch and on a great many others that pay for themselves, Don't believe in $50,000 tractors, don't believe in driving big tractors to Washington for protest demonstrations -- and don't believe in "farming" Washington.