As many of you may know, I’m not much for numbers. I may be
allergic to math, and I’m blessed to have worked with editors and copy editors
who are the most unique of creatures in this news business — those who actually
can do the math.
I write a lot about agriculture telling its story. Stories
are words. But two weeks ago, I wrote about the need for agriculture to tell its
story in a different way — by being more forthcoming with numbers, with actual
numbers that are connected to actual farmers.
We don’t like to talk about numbers, numbers that tell
stories, like how much it costs to pay for fuel for a tractor, corn seed to
plant, nitrogen fertilizer and cash rent. If you ask about these numbers,
farmers won’t say. It’s private, and I understand that.
When a reporter, like me, asks ag groups about the numbers,
we’re referred to land-grant universities, such as the University of Illinois
and Iowa State University and Purdue University, who put averages together on
They’re good numbers, make no mistake. But they are
averages. They take the highest and the lowest numbers, and they add them
together and divide. Many farmers may be higher than those numbers, some may be
The problem with averages is that they can be quickly
dismissed because people understand how averages are obtained.
We’ve also heard that statistics bore people. But when the
statistics are balanced with words, with stories, when they are connected to
faces and actual people, they become a lot more interesting and a lot more
On July 2, the National Farmers Union and 531 other groups
from a broad swath of interests sent a letter to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner
demanding that he take up a unified farm bill when the House returns to work on
The GOP-led House has twice failed to pass a farm bill and
not only did they fail to pass it, members of Congress seem pretty tight-lipped
about their double failures. They’d rather talk about student loan rates and
other stuff, any other stuff, than to talk about why the Democratic-led Senate
has managed to pass a farm bill twice now, but the GOP-led House just can’t
figure it out.
The NFU letter mentioned that farmers and lenders need the
assurance and the certainty of a new farm bill. But what is lacking from all the
farm bill talk are the numbers — for farmers and farming and agriculture that
When it looked like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance
Program, perhaps the biggest bone of contention and the thing that’s being
blamed for the House failing twice to pass a farm bill, was in danger of
undergoing some pretty big cuts, SNAP advocates did the math.
Feeding America is a nationwide organization that
administers 200 food banks throughout the country. FeedingAmerica.org is their
If you go to that website, it’s not tough to find their
numbers — and they have a lot of numbers. I clicked on the “Hunger in America”
The easy-to-read menu showed me I could click on several
links, so let’s click on “Hunger Facts.” Right there, I see “Hunger and Poverty
Numbers jumped out at me, lots of numbers, easy to read,
easy to figure out and in context. As a reporter, this is the stuff that stories
are made of — easy to access, solid data. Data like this:
* In 2011, 5.1 percent of all U.S. households — 6.1 million
households — accessed emergency food from a food pantry one or more
* In 2011, 57.2 percent of food-insecure households
participated in at least one of the three major federal food assistance programs
— the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp
Program; the National School Lunch Program; and the Special Supplemental
Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; and
* Feeding America provides emergency food assistance to an
estimated 37 million low-income people annually, a 46 percent increase from 25
million since Hunger in America 2006.
Are these numbers general? Sure. But also included on the
Feeding America site are the results of the “Map the Meal Gap” study, which
gives more precise numbers by region.
In addition, efforts such as the SNAP Challenge give
numbers. The SNAP Challenge is an effort by the Food Research and Action Center
to illustrate how much money, on average, SNAP recipients have to spend on food.
We’re talking averages, I know, but the fact is that
presenting numbers that people can relate to can be an effective tool when it’s
put in terms people can understand. It’s a specific dollar amount that people
can relate to.
They can put themselves in that person’s place spending that
amount of money for specific items. It’s not an impossible task for agriculture
to do something similar.
If you want non-ag and non-farm people to relate to what it
costs you to do business as a farmer, they need to know what it costs you to do
business as a farmer. They need to see that you have to write checks for so many
thousands of dollars, one for seed, one for fertilizer, one for the equipment
payment and some for the cash rent payment, in months when the thought of spring
is a long way away.
People who aren’t used to expending anything but gas money
to make a living, who have their health insurance and 401(k) payments
automatically withdrawn from their checks, as well as their taxes, need to be
able to read, in dollars and cents, how much a farmer needs to spend to make a
paycheck. They need to be able to see a farm-by-farm illustration or at least on
a county by county basis.
What they’re seeing now are farmers hoping for $9 corn and
$20 soybeans, driving around in $40,000 pickup trucks and picking corn with
$425,000 combines. Those are the numbers that farmers aren’t shy about talking
about, but it’s the numbers that happen before the purchase of the truck and the
combine that consumers need to see.
In this political environment, agriculture itself is a
commodity. It’s a product. Just like your corn and soybeans, your hogs, chickens
and cattle, cotton and rice and tomatoes and grapes, in order to be a success,
you need to find buyers.
In order to find buyers who are willing to pay for your
product — agriculture and support of agriculture through the farm bill — we need
to explain what it costs to make your product, and we need to explain it in
detail. Just saying “it costs a lot” isn’t acceptable anymore in the information
People want to know what things cost to make before they pay
good money — in this case, their support for agriculture and the farm bill — for
When non-ag people can put themselves into that number, when
they can envision themselves writing that check for seed or cash rent or health
insurance or when they can look at their wallet and see the $4.50 a day they’d
have to spend as a SNAP recipient, that number has made a powerful statement for