Fox In the Chicken House

It has been said that today's decisions determine tomorrow's destiny. Rural America's destiny was dealt a blow Aug. 6 when President Bush, using his power to make appointments while Congress is in recess, appointed Iowan Thomas Dorr as the undersecretary for rural development. The undersecretary for rural development is critically important to family-size farms and ranches and to smaller rural communities all across America. Dorr will influence what programs are the best fit for the dollars that the farm bill provides rural America.

It's not often that Iowans speak out against Iowans, but Dorr has received his share of home-based criticism. Dorr's vision of factory farming as the model for the future, his statements at Iowa State University that ethnic and religious diversity are stumbling blocks to rural economic growth and his intentions to violate, circumvent and evade payment limitations from USDA farm programs on his own farm are only a few of the red flags.

Understanding rural America is no easy task. It is tempting to generalize and oversimplify. But I can only speak to this issue as a rural Iowan. When a man publicly states that 225,000-acre farms consisting of three computer-linked pods will be the farm of the future, it is hard to fathom the devastation that causes to the land and the people who dwell on it. It gives a whole new meaning to "rural development." According to the USDA the average size farm today is 450 acres. When you replace 500 450-acre farms with one mega-farm, it changes the entire face of the landscape. Iowa's square mile road grids that contain 640 acres would be eliminated. Those 640-acre patches of land would not efficiently accommodate the type of equipment needed to farm 225,000 acres.

Conservation practices such as terraces, grassed waterways and contoured buffer strips would disappear because of the inability of huge equipment to negotiate them. Windbreaks that provide habitat for wildlife and protect soils from wind erosion would also be minimized if not eliminated. Iowa's many small creeks would probably be contained in huge underground tiles and soils would be placed on top. Farm buildings, the infrastructure of the past century and a half, would be annihilated.

It leaves a person to wonder about the people who presently live on the land. Who would be left to live in Iowa's 950 towns? Would there be enough diverse needs to support independent merchants on a main street? Would large agriculture be the only game in town? What would school districts look like? Iowa presently has 93,500 farms. Following Dorr's model we would have 148.

Rural America is diverse in many ways. The one common factor is the overall pattern of economic disadvantage in rural areas. Mr. Dorr sent Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a memo in 1999 to complain about charges on his phone bill for fees that help provide telephone service and Internet access to rural communities, hospitals and schools. In that memo he tells Harkin, "But should you decide to take a few side trips through the Iowa countryside, you'll see an inordinate number of homes surrounded by five to ten cars. The homes generally have a value of less than $10,000. This just confirms my '10 car $10,000 home theory.' The more you try to help, the more you hinder. The results are everywhere."

Harkin states, "Dorr was given every opportunity to explain this theory at his confirmation hearing, but he could provide no coherent explanation. In fact, it seems clear that Mr. Dorr was slamming the very people, the very rural communities he is nominated to serve at USDA Rural Development. He was making light of lower income Americans in rural communities who are struggling to make a living and get ahead &emdash; and declaring that it is counterproductive to try to help."

Dorr has had to repay $34,000 to the government for funneling money through family members' trusts to misrepresent the amount Dorr's family farm received from farm programs, thus dodging the maximum payment limitation. The Agriculture Committee, which reviewed his nomination, learned that $65,000 more in farm payments have been received by the two trusts from 1988 through 1993 under the same circumstances that required the other repayments. Finally, the Department of Agriculture became less responsive to committee requests and refused to provide additional information.

Given the problems minority farmers have had with USDA, Dorr's proven ability to evade payment limitations from USDA programs for his own financial gain and his affinity for large factory farms, one has to question Bush's drive to place Dorr in charge of America's rural development. While he is a farmer from Iowa and a former board member for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, his work as finance co-chair for the Bush 2000 campaign in Iowa may be the key to his appointment.

The decision was made by the committee not to recommend Dorr for the USDA position. President Bush made the appointment anyway. A recess appointment, made when Congress is not in session, allows a president to temporarily bypass the Senate confirmation needed to place a nominee in office. The good news is that Dorr will only be able to serve for a year before he will have to be confirmed. Harkin threatened to reopen the committee's investigation of Dorr's finances for other years if he were given a recess appointment.

Harkin has done Iowa proud by blowing the whistle on a fellow Iowan. Rural Americans need to be aware that keeping the Democrats in the majority and keeping Harkin in his leadership position until Dorr's confirmation next year is more important today than ever. There is a fox in the chicken house. America better be remembering who put him there and working on his timely removal before we lose something we can't replace.

LaVon Griffieon of Ankeny, Iowa, is a farmwife and co-founder and president of 1000 Friends of Iowa.

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