by Ray Starling
I am fond of saying that one of the primary determinants of agricultural success in the U.S. is government policy. Let’s face it. It picks winners and losers, instills mandates and decides when to waive them, dictates many of our international marketing opportunities, drives our health care and education costs, regulates what we apply and when we apply it, and is rumored to have a thing or two to say about what energy we develop, deploy, and consume.
For those who want to debate the waxing or waning of the “era of big government,” they might want to speak with an agribusiness owner first. The people who are “here to help” are everywhere.
So, who is making the decisions? With agriculture and agribusiness being a top five industry in over half of our states, surely we are well represented in Congress? Well, it depends.
The Congressional Research Service recently updated its biennial report profiling the membership of the current Congress. While the dominant professions of congressional members are public service/politics, business, or law, I was surprised to see there are 27 farmers, ranchers, or cattle farm owners in Congress (six in the Senate, 21 in the House).
With slots for 435 House members and 100 senators, it appears that, as a percentage, farm owners make up about 5 percent of the overall elected officials in Washington, D.C.
One could easily argue that at 5 percent, farmers are overrepresented in Congress. They constitute slightly more than 1 percent of the U.S. population. But before you crow about that, you should know that 5 percent figure actually marks a steep decline in farmer representation since the end of World War II.
A progressive thinktank called the Brookings Institute and a conservative one called the American Enterprise Institute jointly publish a document entitled “Vital Statistics on Congress,” which has tracked the professions of Congressional members for 70 years. In 1953, the House had 63 members whose occupation before being elected was agriculture; the Senate had 21. Converting the numbers for that Congress to a percentage, it was more than 15 percent. The trendline here is that farmer participation in Congress is in decline, even if we are still holding our own.
Beyond the data, there’s the policy work. A prominent agriculture lobbyist told me that the House Agriculture Committee this year had to actively recruit members. There are 47 slots to fill on the House committee, so even if all the farmers joined it, they’d have to recruit more than two dozen more.
In the Senate, members still jockey to join the committee, which is why some eyebrows were raised when it welcomed its first vegan in January.
The point here is that much is said of big agriculture and its grip on Washington. And farmers have, in recent history, punched above their weight. But the forecast is not promising.
With aggies making up a smaller portion of the American electorate, a similar fate likely awaits their participation percentage in elected office.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Farmers and executives in the farm machinery business are generally well-regarded in their communities. Our farmer and agribusiness associations should offer resources for those in the agriculture industry willing to explore public office, and those of us with checkbooks should step up to support them when they do.
The future of ag policy depends on who is present for the conversation. Let’s make sure we’re there.
Ray Starling has been the general counsel for a state department of agriculture, a staffer on the U.S. Senate Ag Committee, and Chief of Staff to a U.S. senator. He joined the White House in 2017 as special assistant to the president for agricultural policy. In 2018, he became chief of staff for USDA’s Sonny Perdue. See this article in its entirety in Ag Innovator magazine, or at FarmEquip.org/agi.