“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 in agriculture.


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” debate.

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!”

Not really.

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 legitimate action.

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 “good nutrition.”

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 me.

“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 — for themselves.

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.”