In my speaking engagements this winter, one theme I have emphasized is a my vote for an alternative theme for American agriculture's communication with the public. In my mind, it is strangely inconsistent to broadcast boastfully of "being the best farmers in the world" while panhandling public officials for protection against what are essentially the ordinary professional challenges of our work (prices, weather, etc.).
So while those "deserving your dollars" arguments were certainly self-satisfying, they may strike many within and without ag as ill-fitted to present circumstances.
But as other American institutions falter - or are exposed as organized buffoonery - a very real question arises if anything works in the US.
But now, thanks to widespread incompetence, American management is on its way to becoming an international laughingstock. Faith in American financial sobriety has been widely undermined by the subprime mess. The very mention of the strong-dollar policy now elicits raucous bouts of knee-slapping in even the most sober Swiss banks. (How do you say schadenfreude in German?)It one thing to realize much of the world disagrees with our foreign policy, quite another get the uneasy sense of disrespect on the job. In this moment I think agriculture can accomplish two extraordinary acts of encouragement and inspiration.
Earlier this month, as oil hovered near $100 a barrel, President Bush complained to OPEC about high oil prices. OPEC President Chakib Khelil responded acidly that crude's remarkable run had nothing to do with the reluctance of Persian Gulf nations to pump oil, and everything to do with the "mismanagement of the U.S. economy." Since Bush's plea, oil has gushed to $110 per barrel. (How do you say schadenfreude in Arabic?)
Americans abroad are constantly taunted by perceived failings of American management. America's aviation system is now the butt of jokes because 9-year-olds have become accustomed to removing their Heelys before boarding a plane. As my family and I passed through the snaking security line in Cancún, Mexico's airport last month, we were harangued by a security guard who encouraged tourists to sing along with him: "Please. Do not. Remove. Your shoes."
The concern extends beyond airlines to America's industrial complex. Doubtful of the ability of provincial American executives, with their limited language skills, to negotiate today's global business environment, the boards of massive U.S. firms like Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Alcoa, and insurer AIG have hired foreign-born CEOs. Carl Icahn, the 1980s corporate raider, has reinvented himself as a borscht-belt comedian/activist investor, who delights conferences and reporters with jokes at CEOs' expense. On a recent 60 Minutes, Icahn complained to Lesley Stahl about the incompetence of American management. "I see our country going off a cliff, and I feel bad about it." [More]
First, we can reassure a very anxious citizenry that something (and someone) here works. And works well. Not by braying loudly like a self-absorbed pro athlete. A calm, confident voice speaking quietly of promises that will be kept, of anchors unshaken, of an industry still capable and willing could gradually quiet the popular doomsaying chorus and lift eyes above today's fog.
Our hard-won positions in the hearts and esteem of our fellow citizens can be leveraged by a remarkable performance on our farms this season to literally ground our ballooning suspicions of ineptitude, and renew a justified confidence in more of the basic machinery of our society.
Second, by backing years of brag with facts in the form of bushels enough to go around, even our bitterest global critics will grudging allow that we show up to play. Such a performance this year may remind more than a few other industries of their own proud heritages and unrealized potential. In short, if we pull 2008 off - and pretend it's easy - we can lift more than farmer spirits. We can energize a nation ands help restore American prestige.
America works. And works well. And it often starts on our farms.