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col Throwing money at the problem hasn't worked

Fall is a paradoxical time, especially this one. Corn and soybean yields -- where enough rain came but not too much -- have reached near-record levels. Grain prices, while not good, have improved and the government program promises to keep land values high and drive them higher.

Yet, uneasiness settles over the land like a pea-soup fog. Milk prices are in the pits and rumors persist that this is the last fall and winter for many traditionally sized dairy operations. Minnesota's milk production is declining dramatically. Wisconsin -- the bedrock of the traditional dairy industry -- is hurting big time as dairy producers suffer from higher costs and lower prices.

The economic downturn that sent the stock market tumbling and downsized retirement funds for white- and blue-collar workers has stalked rural America for a decade or more. The flight of wealth and people from rural areas has produced a long-term crisis. Politicians and policy experts grapple for solutions that have proven to be elusive.

Throwing money at the crisis has only made it worse. Yet, it remains the simplest solution and therefore the most popular one. By many measurements -- new combines in the field, land values and rental rates -- there's plenty of money in farm country. Yet, it's obviously held in fewer hands.

The masters of this universe -- the grain dealers and input suppliers -- have yet to turn family farmers into relatively low-paid tractor drivers. But many believe that time is coming. Politicians on the stump and economic planners speak of value-added opportunities, economic development zones and elusive markets. Yet, the key to farm prosperity remains the same as it always has been. Farmers must use the power they have as producers to set a price that includes a reasonable profit for their production.

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Agitators spoke of it way back in the 19th century and railed against the moneyed interests in the early- to mid-20th century, yet farmers have not turned to unity in the face of an unyielding economic onslaught.

The empowerment of farmers to act as individual businesspeople working is the last, best hope for the survival of family farmers, which is the strength of democracy itself.

In England, perceived threats to the rural way of life prompted hundreds of thousands to participate in protests.

Not so here, where farmers and rural residents live in quiet desperation. Solutions offered by commodity groups and farm organizations are outmoded and fit another time and place. These groups are either unwilling or unable to change their approaches. The leadership void that exists in rural America widens.

There is a place for vision, just as there is a place for family farmers in America's future. However, if we aren't willing to change and to strongly question today's so-called irreversible trends in agriculture rural areas will continue to fade away.

That loss will affect everyone. It is imperative that the family farm structure not be allowed to fade into obscurity. The United States needs family farmers for the good of the economy and for the health of the republic itself.

Wilmes is Managing Editor of Agri News.

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