This editorial ran in the Dec. 11, 2017, edition of The (Alton) Telegraph:
Just because once-green fields are now barren doesn't mean farms fall silent.
Even those who aren't tending to livestock have plenty of things to fill the winter hours and days. Combines and planters need repaired and readied for spring. Decisions have to be made about what crops will be planted next season. Budgets have to be prepared.
Those who have never run a farm — family or commercial — can only imagine what goes into that last responsibility. There is a lot of projecting and guessing: from what the weather will do to how crop payments will trend to how the economy will affect the prices of equipment and materials.
Compound that with a growing mystery over the future of the United States's role in the North American Free Trade Agreement and it would be easy to understand the hand-wringing taking place in the agriculture world.
About one-third of Illinois farmers surveyed by the Illinois Farm Bureau expect 2018 to be rougher than this year, while 59 percent anticipate things being the same. The majority are planning to delay buying equipment, while one-quarter say it's likely they will cut back on labor or buy less-expensive seed.
"In this climate, farmers are looking for ways to cut expenses," Illinois Farm Bureau senior economist Mike Doherty said. "It's not only a matter of financial awareness; for many, it will be an absolute necessity."
The impact of that angst will extend beyond the tilled farmlands. The agriculture community pumps more than $121 billion a year into the state's economy — nearly 10 percent of the total — and its 72,200 farms account for almost 6 percent of all the jobs in the state, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
Illinois also is a leading exporter of agricultural commodities, with its 27 million acres shipping more than $8 billion in goods to other countries.
Given that, it's not surprising that trade agreements and the future of NAFTA are big worries for Illinois farmers.
"Our farmers understand the importance of trade and value its contribution to their bottom lines, so it's always a priority. However, this year's political focus on NAFTA and talks of withdrawing from the trade deal certainly keeps trade top-of-mind," according to Adam Nielsen, director of national legislation and policy for the Illinois Farm Bureau.
The Trump administration has signaled its desire to pull out of NAFTA. Many agriculture groups have expressed opposition to such a move, while some are supportive of going that direction if better agreements can be forged.
Unfortunately, that's a big "if" and it seems as though having a plan in place is not a priority. It's become modus operandi for federal agencies so blinded by the rush to dismantle the past that they don't even consider the future. The ambiguity of putting "America first" too often seems to mean "America all by itself."
Failing to grasp, or choosing to ignore, that distinction when it comes to the importance of trade could be devastating.
Not just for the farmers who are able to see beyond the here and now.