Farmers and the Farm Bureau 

In the last days of the legislature the powerful Arkansas Farm Bureau is trying to prevent the creation of what state government needed years ago — an Agriculture Department. Because any bright sixth-grader in Arkansas knows that agriculture is what pays the bills, this would seem to be a very strange move by any organization with “farm” in its name. But most people know that the Arkansas Farm Bureau is more interested in selling insurance than selling crops. Also, politicians know to stay with the bureau if they want to be re-elected. Sure, some Farm Bureau people are helpful to farmers, but they don’t begin to do what a well-operated Agriculture Department could do. The criticisms of those who have spoken against a department are pretty thin. Some say it would be too expensive and increase bureaucracy. The Farm Bureau’s spokesman says: “Why do we want to change something that works so well and put it under a political system that is going to greatly devalue the system that we have in place?” But most farmers think there is nothing effective now, whereas an Agriculture Department’s leader could broadcast our farm products worldwide, and nobody is doing that today. Arkansas farmers produce 45 percent of American rice and almost the same of soybeans, poultry and cotton. The Bush administration is halting the selling of rice to Cuba with the idea that it might make them so mad or hungry that they would toss out Fidel Castro. The head of an Arkansas Agriculture Department could tell people in Washington how ludicrous that idea is. Other than Arkansas, there are only two other states that don’t have agriculture departments — Alaska and Rhode Island, which have the smallest agriculture sales of any state. Meanwhile, Arkansas, which ranks 12th in the nation for selling crops, livestock and products, has never had an agriculture department. Senate Bill 448’s sponsors, Sen. Steve Higginbothom of Marianna and Rep. Wayne Nichols of Marked Tree, say their department would bring together six small departments and that it wouldn’t cost more, and maybe less than is being spent now. The Senate okayed the bill by one vote and so did the House Committee on Agriculture. So, obviously, every senator and representative who isn’t afraid of the Farm Bureau needs to vote yes. I can’t remember any time that Americans have been so deeply absorbed in death as we have been in the past few days. First, newspapers, radios and TV stations flooded us with stories about Terri Schiavo, a pretty, 41-year-old woman in Florida whose husband, following his brain-damaged wife’s wishes and the advice of doctors, ordered the removal of a feeding tube that had been keeping her alive in a hospice bed for 15 years. The parents asked a state court to stop the removal of the tube. They lost, and then the unbelievable battle went on to U.S. and Florida courts, the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress and the president of the United States. Many religious conservatives sided with the parents, and it caused Rep. Tom DeLay, the Republican House Majority Leader, to go before Congress and TV saying such things as “I never thought I’d see the day when a U.S. judge stopped feeding a living American so that they took 14 days to die.” So representatives and senators followed DeLay and voted to order a a federal court to review the case, and President Bush flew up from Texas to sign the order at 1:11 a.m. But the federal courts wouldn’t intervene and Mrs. Schiavo died peacefully last Thursday. I liked what John Danforth, once a conservative Republican senator from Missouri, told the New York Times: “By a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians. While religions are free to advocate for their own sectarian causes, the work of government and those who engage in it is to hold together as one people a very diverse country.” On Sunday in Rome came the second death. John Paul II died at age 84 — the Catholic pope for 26 years who was seen in person by more people than any other individual on Earth. He traveled 773,000 miles and went to 867 cities. He was a jolly fellow, fluent in eight languages, a lover of kids and a leader who despised dictators, wars and communism. But he was very conservative, and because of it today’s young people loved him but not all his rules. Many American Catholics are angry that in 84 dioceses 4,392 priests have sexually abused 10,667 minors in the last 52 years. Since 2002 about 700 priests have been removed for that reason. Pope John Paul had little or nothing to say or do about the situation. In fact, the Vatican has questioned the U.S. bishops’ requiring zero tolerance toward accused priests. So some American Catholics must be hoping for an up-to-date Pope.

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