Pondering Government’s Role in America and Jamaica

The chill gave way to sunshine and temperatures in the low seventies yesterday afternoon, perfect weather for golf, so I slung the clubs in the back of the Escort and headed for Sandpiper, a hilly little course just up the road from our Lakeland, Florida home. I was hitting the ball on the club face for a change, so all was right with the world. And on the fifth hole, a short downhill par-three with a sand trap in front of the green, I joined an amiable fellow named Jim.

By that time, I was on a roll, having parred the fourth hole, and proceeded to par the next two, bogey the par-five eighth and par the ninth, also a par-five. Before the day was done I would even get a birdie, so – yes – it was one of those days that bring me back to the golf course.

As we golfers do, Jim and I got to chatting about this and that, and it turned out he’s a dairy farmer from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who is vacationing here in Florida. By the fourteenth hole, the conversation turned to politics and I confessed that I write liberal blogs despite living in a deeply Republican neighborhood.

Jim said Grand Rapids is also bright red, which he said was only fitting, considering it was the hometown of the late president Gerald Ford. I commented that President Ford would likely be described as a “moderate” Democrat today, considering how far to the right the country has moved. And Jim agreed.

He said it’s no wonder, considering the abuse that the social safety network has suffered, especially in agriculture. If there is one group that would be happy to have the government stay out of its affairs, it’s the farmers, he declared.

I was puzzled. Surely the government has protected farmers through the years, making sure that the country can count on a solid agricultural base?

Growing up in Jamaica, I saw first-hand how helpful to farmers a government can be.  My father worked for the Jamaica Agricultural Society, which was a quasi-government agency. And he spent many a day contouring hillsides for the farmers – so they could plant grass terraces to keep the topsoil from washing into the sea – and budding citrus trees so they would yield more and better varieties of fruit. And he drove miles over bad mountain roads to bring the latest technology to the growers. He even vaccinated their cattle against anthrax because veterinarians were few and far between in those days.

Government employees worked tirelessly on research and development programs to improve the island’s livestock and crops, and on new ways to fight diseases and pests. Dr. Thomas Lecky, for example, developed Jamaica Hope, a breed of cattle especially suited for the local climate and conditions. (Photos show Jamaica Hope cattle, top; Dr. Lecky receiving the first Norman Manley award for excellence from Mrs. Edna Manley in 1970 while then-prime minister Hugh Shearer applauds, below.)

The government imported prize bulls and operated breeding stations for the farmers. It provided them with drought (and disease) resistant seed and protein-rich feed. And later on, the Agricultural Marketing Corporation was formed to ensure farmers would always have somewhere to sell their produce.

So I asked Jim if he wasn’t glad to have the government provide a safety net for the lean years that all farmers are bound to have. But he said no; he belongs to a cooperative and guards against hard times by buying “futures” through the cooperative. I mentioned that friends (and my late Uncle Alvin) lost heavily when they ventured into the commodities market, but he said the cooperative has a program to protect him against losing.

I know agriculture in America is much more complex than it is in Jamaica, and the government’s farm policies can be quite baffling. I’ve read about millionaires in Saudi Arabia receiving farm subsidies from the U.S. Government. And I understand farmers here get paid huge sums not to grow certain crops. I also understand that the government subsidizes the cultivation of corn for ethanol, which pushes up the price of the grain needed to feed livestock and bake bread for our tables. And critics say the fossil fuel used to convert corn to ethanol is about the same as cars would use if no ethanol was added to gasoline…

But, surely, the American government also provides research and development and a host of other services that benefit the nation’s farmers?

I was about to ask Jim about this, but it was my turn to putt. And it was too nice a day to argue.