[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book II)]
[September 15, 1998]
[Pages 1585-1589]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks to the National Farmers Union
September 15, 1998

    Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon; welcome 
to the White House. Lee, thank you for the award. Thank you for your 
comments. Thank you for your strength. Thank you for your leadership for 
our farmers. I've known him for years; I don't think I'd ever focused on 
what a good speaker he was before. [Laughter] He could have been a 
politician or a preacher in addition to a farmer. It was great.
    I want to thank Secretary Glickman for his truly outstanding work, 
along with Rich Rominger, Carl Whillock, and the others here

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from the Department of Agriculture, who really try to be your advocates 
every day. We have at least three NFU members who work at USDA, Mike 
Dunn Larry Mitchell, and John Stencel, and I thank them in particular.
    I want to thank Senator Dorgan and Congressman Pomeroy for coming 
and for being your vociferous advocates. I talked to Senator Harkin 
right before I came over here today, and he has also been your great 
friend, along with Senator Conrad and Senator Daschle and Congressman 
Boswell from Iowa, who couldn't come this morning. But all these people 
have been up here working hard for you, and I wanted you to know that.
    I also would like to say that the National Farmers Union has done a 
lot of good for this administration and for our efforts here in 
Washington, from helping to keep our food supply safe, to working to 
expand health care, to giving us the first balanced budget in 29 years 
in just a couple of weeks now. You have been with me every step of the 
way, and I am very grateful for that.
    When I was a boy growing up in Arkansas, I knew a lot about 
agriculture, but I didn't know much about the intersection of 
agriculture and politics. When I became a Governor and served for a 
dozen years, many of them very, very hard years in the 1980's on the 
farms in my State, I came to appreciate what it was like when the 
National Government had good policy, what it was like when it had bad 
policy, and what it was like when it had no policy.
    I remember there were a couple of years when I was doing everything 
I could to be creative. And I think when you were head of the South 
Dakota Farmers Union, the State of South Dakota actually came to me--the 
Governor then--and asked me for a copy of the banking laws that I had 
changed in Arkansas, because I changed our State banking laws to try to 
help the bankers keep more farmers on the farm. And when we had that 
terrible situation when the price of land collapsed, all the collateral 
on the loans was no good. There was no way for people to finance their 
farms, and they were losing them, and we were able to give some help to 
our farmers then. But through the whole thing, I always felt so helpless 
that there wasn't an appropriate national response.
    Now I feel especially bad for the farmers because it's been such a 
good time for the rest of the country. We've got nearly 17 million new 
jobs now, and the lowest unemployment rate in 28 years, and the lowest 
inflation in 32 years, the highest homeownership in history, the lowest 
crime rate in 25 years, the smallest percentage of our people on welfare 
in 29 years. To somebody living in a city, to tell them that we have a 
farm crisis more extensive than we've had in decades, it's very hard for 
them to believe and understand.
    You may note that in the local paper today I was criticized for 
supporting a farm relief initiative in Congress. And Secretary Glickman 
said, ``Don't be upset. This is good news because they have noticed that 
the farmers are out there.'' [Laughter]
    Yesterday I had a chance to go to New York and speak with some of 
the leaders in the United States in international finance, from our 
Nation's point of view, to talk to them about what I think we need to do 
to try to keep the global economy from further destabilizing, to try to 
help some of these countries help themselves that are in terrible 
trouble, to try to keep the global financial crisis from spreading to 
other countries, and to try to build an adequate trade and financial 
system for the 21st century that will benefit all Americans.
    One--but not the only--but one element of the farm crisis today is 
that the farmers have felt first the crisis going on in the rest of the 
world. Because with roughly a quarter of the world's people in recession 
with declining economic growth, representing roughly a third of the 
world's economy, our agriculture, which depends so much on exports, have 
felt that quicker than the rest of the economy. But it's an important 
thing for Americans to be aware of what's going on on the farm today and 
to be aware that since the farmers, in effect, are the foot soldiers in 
the frontlines of America's march into the global economy of the 21st 
century, if we don't do something to help our farmers, eventually all 
other Americans will feel it as well.
    And so I am delighted that you're here, and I thank you for coming. 
Let me also once again say, I thank you for making available the 
opportunity for all these young people to be here. I want them to see 
their country in action. I want them to learn--much earlier than I ever 
did--the relationship between the work that's done every day on the farm 
and the work that's done up here. I think it's very important. It will 
make them more effective citizens and more effective in farming in the 
years ahead.

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    Now, what's really going on here? I wanted to give this speech 
today--I realize to some extent I'm preaching to the saved today. 
[Laughter] But what I hope will happen by your coming here and by this 
event unfolding is that maybe, finally, we will break through the 
national consciousness and the consciousness of the Congress and our 
friends in the press corps not to panic, not to think that America's not 
doing well but to say that at a time when our country is doing well, 
surely at a time when the rest of us are doing well, we can be more 
attentive to the genuine needs and the conditions on the farm in 
    Events in the past year have strained many family farms to the 
breaking point. You know what they are: Flood, drought, crop disease 
have wiped out entire harvests; plummeting prices at home, collapsing 
markets in Asia--where our exports are down 30 percent in one year 
because of the economic crisis in Asia--these have threatened the 
livelihood of entire communities. Many farmers this year will see their 
net incomes drop by more than 40 percent below what they've earned on 
average for the last 5 years. And of course, in some places, like North 
Dakota, the drop is much, much steeper. If we don't do something and do 
it now--I want America to hear this; this is not a false alarm--if we 
don't do something and do it now, we could literally lose thousands and 
thousands of family farmers this year.
    I want to come back to this and why it's not just about who's 
competitive in the market. The results are plain to see and painful to 
watch. Foreclosures and farm auctions are the order of the day already 
in many communities. I met a farmer named Deb Lungren not long ago who 
told me that in 1957 her grandfather made $11,000 on their family farm. 
And in 1997 she made $10,000 on the same land. The banks are ready to 
foreclose on the Lungren home. They don't see how they can possibly make 
it another year. I'll bet everybody here could tell me somewhere between 
one and a dozen stories just like that.
    Now, again I say, I think every American has got a stake in rural 
America. Our farms feed the world and us at very low real costs, at very 
high quality. They also feed our sense of ourselves. They reinforce our 
values of hard work and faith and family and devotion to community and 
the land.
    When I signed that farm bill, as Secretary Glickman said, in 1996, 
at a time when crop prices were strong--and I would remind you, the 
alternative was far worse; we would have been in even worse shape if I 
had vetoed it and we'd gone back to that decades-old law--I tried to 
make it clear that sooner or later we would have to do more to provide a 
safety net for hard times, that all the good things in that farm bill 
could not possibly wipe away the fact that if we have a family farm 
structure in America with widely varying prices because of market 
developments around the world, and the inevitable march of nature and 
disease, that sooner or later there would come a time when we see that 
if you really wanted a strong market, you had to do more for the family 
farmers. Well, that time has arrived.
    I want to thank Secretary Glickman for all that he's done. And in 
July we announced that 80 million bushels of wheat, worth a quarter of 
billion dollars, would be purchased to help hungry people around the 
world and to help our farmers here at home. I strongly supported Senator 
Dorgan and Senator Conrad's proposal to provide farmers with emergency 
assistance. Last month I signed into law new legislation to speed up 
farm program payments to help farmers who need the money now.
     And Secretary Glickman is doing everything else he possibly can to 
help. I know him well enough to know that from his years in Congress 
representing Kansas and his years as Secretary of Agriculture, if there 
is one single thing buried in the laws and regulations of the Department 
of Agriculture that he can do that he has not yet done to try to help 
farm income, he will find it and do it. But with crop and livestock 
prices still in danger of dropping, with foreign markets still in danger 
of collapse, and with thousands of farms in jeopardy, we simply have to 
do more.
    The first and most important thing to do is to help the farmers in 
greatest need, those who have suffered significant losses of crop and 
livestock. I'll continue to press Congress to enact emergency assistance 
to do that--critical assistance to help thousands of farmers in keeping 
with the traditional budget rules that recognize the necessity of 
providing citizens help in times of crisis. We pass emergency bills for 
floods, for earthquakes, and we ought to do it for farm failure.

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    The next thing I think we ought to do--indeed, we have to do--is to 
do what we talked about back in 1996: We've got to reinforce the safety 
net for farmers and ranchers. That's why last Thursday I announced my 
support for Senator Harkin and Daschle's proposal to lift the cap on 
marketing loan rates for a year.
    Yesterday our proposal was defeated in the United States Senate. 
Today, apparently, it is going to be voted on in its discrete elements. 
Whatever happens, we must find some way to provide emergency assistance 
to farmers facing dire circumstances so they have the resources now to 
plan for next year's crops.
    And finally, let me say, we have to revive the rural economy through 
exports. The speech that I gave in New York yesterday outlining steps we 
need to take to try to limit and then resolve the global financial 
crisis, and then plan a better financial and trade system for the 21st 
century over the long term, will have more immediate impact on farmers 
if we can implement all these steps than any other group in America.
    Farm products from one of every 3 acres is sold abroad. We must 
continue to open new markets. We must continue to enforce our existing 
trade agreements. And we must give the International Monetary Fund the 
resources it needs to strengthen and reform the economies of our 
customers in Asia and to try to protect the contagion from spreading to 
our friends in Latin America, so that others can continue to buy all of 
our goods and services and especially our farm products.
    For 9 months now, since I called on Congress to do this in the State 
of the Union, there has been no action. The Senate has passed the 
funding for the International Monetary Fund, but with just a few weeks 
left, the House has still not acted. Our farmers and ranchers have a 
bigger stake in the short run in the passage of this than any other 
group in America. So I ask you to support that as well and tell the 
Congress we have to do it and do it now.
    Now, these are the steps that I think we have to take. I'd just like 
to take one step back before I close and say that there has been a 
debate in America for decades that underlies the skepticism of those who 
don't support what I propose, who say, ``Well, farmers ought to be 
subject to the market like everybody else. A guy running a dry cleaner, 
nobody brings the clothes in to be cleaned, he goes out of business.'' 
The people who basically believe that, in the face of all the evidence 
that we have the most productive agriculture in the world, don't 
understand the intersection between global impacts on farm prices, the 
financing challenges that family farmers, as opposed to big corporate 
farmers, face, and what can happen to you just by getting up in the 
morning if it happens to be a bad day.
    I know a lot of you feel like Job, you know? ``Test my faith, Lord. 
I didn't mean it that seriously.'' [Laughter] But we have an opportunity 
here; we have an opportunity to break through a kind of a euphoria 
that's out there about the condition of our economy and let people know 
what's going on on the farm. We have an opportunity to tie the global 
financial crisis to what's going on on the farm. We have an opportunity 
to convince Congressmen who come from suburban and urban areas that the 
welfare, the health, the strength of their citizens'--their citizens'--
economy rests in lifting the whole American economy and doing the right 
thing beyond our borders. And they can see it in your stories, in your 
lives, in your experience, nothing more fully embodying the best of 
America than you do.
    So let me say--I don't know how else to say this--there is suffering 
on the farm. There is agony on the farm. This is a horrible affront to 
everything we have worked so hard to achieve, to lift the economy for 
all Americans. And we cannot afford to walk away from this session of 
Congress--I don't care if there is an election; I don't care what else 
is happening--we can't afford to walk away until we do something to 
stave off the failure of thousands of productive family farms in 
America. We cannot do it.
    Now, let me leave you with one beautiful quote. Franklin Roosevelt 
once said that American farmers, and I quote, ``are the source from 
which the reservoirs of our Nation's strength are constantly renewed.'' 
For 6 years I have worked to renew America. We're a lot better off in 
virtually every way than we were 6 years ago. But we cannot walk across 
that bridge into the 21st century, we cannot truly renew our country, if 
we leave our family farmers behind. So let's go up to the Hill and tell 
everybody that we all want to saddle up and go together.
    Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 1 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive 
Office Building. In his

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remarks, he referred to Leland Swenson, president, National Farmers 
Union, who presented the President with the organization's 1998 Golden 
Triangle Award for outstanding leadership on issues affecting rural