The so-called popular media, in its sometimes desperate attempt to tell a compelling story, often follows a very familiar “fairy tale” formula. Three main characters are required — a victim, the villain and the hero.
These same predictable character types are seen every day on the front pages of most newspapers, in our favorite television programs, and on movie screens. They're so commonly used because most of us relate to these larger-than-life characters, and some of us even view the world in their terms.
For example, a consumer who buys groceries these days can't help but feel like a victim — innocent and powerless because everyone must eat, no matter the cost. And who is the villain in this tale? According to the media, it's the farmer.
As Auburn University Extension Economist Bob Goodman said in a recent column, in these days of high commodity prices, farmers continue to take hit after hit from the media because of potential future increases in the price of food and the effect that may have on consumers.
Bob, and others like him, have been trying to get the word out that cost increases have largely taken away any profits, and that farmers are not a lot better off today than they were when corn and soybean and wheat prices were lower. But those of us who attempt to convey this message sooner or later start to feel like Sisyphus, the character from Greek mythology who was forced by the gods to roll a huge rock up a steep hill for eternity — there just doesn't seem to be much point in it.
This was driven home even more during a recent conversation with a Georgia farmer about the farm bill negotiations of the past several months.
This farmer started to say something, but then he thought better of it and finally wearily spoke. “Anything we get, we need to be thankful for, and we need to thank the lawmakers who got us whatever we're going to get. I'd personally be surprised if we ever get another one. We've received so much negative press from all of this,” he said.
He continued, saying that every farmer needs a safety net, now more than ever. “We're in as serious an economic situation as was seen back in the late 1970s as far as farming costs and higher commodity prices. What people forget is that the commodity prices come down a lot faster than they go up,” he said.
It'll be catastrophic, he said, if cotton prices go back to 50 to 60 cents per pound. “We can't grow it at profit at 75 cents. Every one of our inputs is higher today. Fertilizer is about three times the price it was a couple of years ago. Nothing farmers do is going down in cost,” he said.
But all the public ever hears about, he added, is that farmers are making record income. “I never thought ethanol from corn was the greatest idea in the world. But I was all for it if it was going to help the farmer. Now, all you hear about is that food costs are high because corn is now being used for ethanol. Corn sold for $5.50 per bushel back in the 1970s. Now, they're saying $6 per bushel is too much.”
Farming, he concluded, has simply become a risky business. “If you aren't good at managing, it's very risky. You have to watch your expenses now more than ever before,” he said.
So if this truly is a three-way drama, as the media would like for us to believe, then who will be the hero in the tale? It's difficult to tell at this point, but judging from past versions of the same story, it won't be the farmer.