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Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, Des Moines, Iowa, Kennedy-Johnson Midwest Farm Conference

August 21, 1960

No conference in this campaign is more important than this one. No domestic issue in this election is more important than the farm issue. No part of the American way of life is more important - or in more trouble - than the family farm.

The Republicans like to say, over and over again, that the big issue in this campaign is executive experience. Their candidate, they say, has experience in the executive branch - he has participated in its decisions - he has shared in its responsibilities - he has been educated in its programs.

I will discuss Mr. Nixon's experience in other fields on other occasions. But when it comes to agriculture, I can only say that disaster has been his experience, and Benson has been his teacher.

I do not use the word "disaster" lightly. During these last 8 years of Mr. Nixon's experience in making decisions, farm purchasing power has been cut some 20 percent. During the 8 years he was sharing executive responsibility, hundreds of thousands of farm families gave up the struggle against the cost-price squeeze. During these last 8 years of Benson, Nixon, Dirksen, and Morton, the average farm family was reduced to a net income of less than $50 a week.

Here in the Middle West, Mr. Nixon hardly speaks to Mr. Benson. He disowns the man he once called "the best Secretary of Agriculture we ever had." But in Portland, Maine, a week ago he talked along different lines. The reason Mr. Benson has not been successful, he said, is because the Democratic Congress has never given his program a chance.

To that, the American farmer can only ask, Where would we be without the Democratic Congress? For we have seen enough of Mr. Benson's program in effect to know what it would do. His program is to drive farm prices down. His program is to drive farm families off the farm. Contrary to Mr. Nixon's statement, the Congress did give Mr. Benson's program a chance - but Mr. Benson's program never gave the farmer a chance.

Now, that an election is near, the Republicans are talking about new slogans, new promises, and a new Secretary of Agriculture. But do not be misled. In the Republican platform today, as in any Republican administration of the future, the Benson song may have ended, but his melody lingers on.

For Republican opposition to farm income protection is not a whim of Mr. Benson. It is a bedrock principle of the Republican Party. It is that party's ironbound obligation to those who stand to profit when farm prices are kept down, when the farmer is without meaningful bargaining power in the marketplace.

I am not talking about the consumer. The Republican farm program has not benefited the consumer. Prices have stayed at a record high level, as every housewife knows, regardless of how hard the farmer is hit.

And I am not talking about the taxpayer. The Republican farm program has not benefited the taxpayer. The total costs and losses on farm price support operations under Benson and Nixon have amounted in 7 years to more than seven times as much as the total for 20 years under Roosevelt and Truman. In fact, they have spent several billion dollars more on agriculture than all the previous administrations in the history of this country combined.

The Republican policy of collapsing farm income does not benefit farmers, or consumers, or taxpayers. It benefits only those powerful interests who benefit from the farmer's adversity - the same interests who kept Mr. Benson in his job - the same interests that dictated this year's Republican farm platform.

That platform calls for "price supports best fitted to specific commodities." It doesn't say who decides - it doesn't say at what level - and it doesn't say best for whom.

The Republican leadership has already demonstrated that they don't mean what's best for the farmer.

The Democratic platform, on the other hand, spells out what we will do to reverse the decline in farm income, and to meet our responsibilities to our farmers, our consumers, and our taxpayers, to all America and to a hungry and troubled world.

That platform pledges, in unmistakable language, "positive action to raise farm income to full parity of income levels and to preserve family farming as a way of life."

It means that farmers shall receive returns for their labor, for their managerial skills, and for their investment which are equal to the returns received for comparable human talents and resources in other types of enterprise.

This is the strongest pledge ever given to the farmers of America by any political party in history.

I stand behind that pledge, and I intend to make good on it, beginning next January.

I do not say the job will be easy. There are no new or magical solutions. Mr. Nixon's talk about a "massive land retirement" plan with "indemnity payments" is no different than the 1956 "acreage reserve" plan of Ezra Taft Benson. More empty slogans and wishful thinking will not solve the problem.

The first thing to be done is to face up to the problem squarely, to recognize its magnitude. We have a revolution on our hands in agriculture. The headlines are full of revolutions in other parts of the world - but we have one right here on our farms. It is a revolution of technology. More and more food is being produced by fewer and fewer people on less and less land.

It is the result of improved machines and equipment, improved pest and disease control, improved water control, improved breeds and varieties, improved timing in cultivation, improved feeding practices, farm plant layout, and farm management.

Our land-grant colleges and private research are producing new miracles every year. Last month it was announced that chlorophyll can now be synthetically produced - that we can do in the laboratory what since the beginning of time we have relied on plants to do in the field - that is, convert sunshine, water, and carbon dioxide into food materials.

Where is this revolution going to lead? A revolution of abundance is better than one of scarcity. But people are being driven out of agriculture at a fantastic rate. The young people leave the farm and never come back. The families hit by failure, merger, or foreclosure move to the city, regardless of whether the city has jobs or homes.

Our small towns are being badly hurt - so are their churches and schools and businessmen - and so is the whole United States.

It would be nice to believe, as the Republicans believe, that migration off the farm will solve the problem of surpluses. But the facts of the matter are that, during these last 8 years when millions have been leaving the farm, our agricultural production has actually increased at a faster rate than our total population. Mr. Benson has acquired surpluses in storage six times as high as the 1952 level-surpluses which are costly to the taxpayers, frustrating to the world's hungry people and depressing in their effect on farm prices. Instead of population pressing on food supplies, as Malthus and others predicted, food supplies in this country are now pressing on the population.

It would also be nice to believe, as the Republicans believe, that as farm prices fall, consumers will buy more food and eat up the surplus. But it hasn't worked that way. Food prices have not fallen. We are on the whole, an affluent, well-fed people. Our stomachs can expand only so far. It takes a 20-percent drop in farm prices to move 2 per-cent more food into consumption. And even then, the surpluses would not be going to where they are really needed - to the underfed, the unemployed, the overlooked - to the families forced to get by on less than $20 a month worth of surplus flour, rice, and cornmeal, with some occasional dried eggs, lard, and skimmed milk.

At the same time, there are other revolutions going on around the world - populations growing faster than food supplies - new nations in need of assistance - underdeveloped nations in need of food for capital. These are fast-changing, fast-moving times. The Republican Party is, as it always has been, the party of the status quo - and today in agriculture there can be no status quo.

In short, timid and temporary measures will not do. The Benson-Nixon-Dirksen philosophy will not do. Four more years of decline and disaster will not do.

We must harness these revolutions. We must ride these waves of change. We must learn to manage our abundance - to bring the great productive capacity of American agriculture into balance with total needs at home and abroad, at prices that will yield to our farmers a fair return on their capital and labor.

That is not a radical goal - or an impossible one. Nor does it treat the farmer any differently from anyone else. It may take hard work - it may mean a difficult transition - it may require tough decisions and many complaints. But the job can be done and I pledge every effort of mind and heart to do it.

I would rather he accused of breaking precedents - than breaking promises.

I am here today to learn. It is my intention to spell out programs throughout this fall. They will offer no special privileges. They will help no segment of the American economy at the expense of another. They will not satisfy everyone - they will not reflect the wishes of any one group - but they will reflect what I think is right. And they will live up to the strongest farm platform in American political history.

That farm program will not be based on cold statistics. It will not be based on economics textbooks, on academic theories or remote trends. It will be a program for the individual farmer and his family - the man who has done more for America and received less for it than possibly any other group in our Nation - the man who fights year after year to do a good job, to use his soil and water wisely, to cooperate with Government policies, to maintain a decent home for his family, only to see his crop price go down and down as the cost of his equipment and his utilities and his family's clothes and doctor bills go up and up.

That program must contain four basic objectives:

First, a positive policy of supply management to raise farm prices and incomes to parity levels - and that will require a sympathetic Secretary of Agriculture using a whole arsenal of tools (marketing quotas, sales quotas, land retirement, soil conservation, commodity purchases and loans, marketing orders and agreements, and many others - on a commodity-by-commodity basis) in cooperation with decisions made on the local level by local farmers themselves.

Secondly, a positive food and nutrition policy for all Americans, with better diets and distribution to our schoolchildren, our unemployed and our unfortunate, and a security reserve against the hazards of modern war expanding existing programs and using the new ones a timid administration has been unwilling to test.

Third, a dynamic food and fiber policy for worldwide use, emphasizing above all a "peace reserve" aiding all nations in distress, and to which each farmer would be proud to contribute, instead of being constantly shamed in public on the grounds that he is piling up wasteful surpluses.

Fourth, a long-range program for low-income farms, credit, research, and new rural industries.

Both parties describe one phase of their policy as "food for peace." But I would give that name to our entire program. For peace is man's greatest aspiration - a just peace, a secure peace, without appeasement.

We will not accept the peace of foreign domination - we do not seek the peace of the grave. We want more than this so-called peace that is merely an interval between wars.

There will be no farm program - there will be no farm boys or farms - if we cannot get off this deadly collision course on which we are presently headed. It's time for real leadership again in foreign affairs - fresh, firm leadership for peace. And in that mighty effort, we shall depend again - as we have in all our history - on our food, our farms, and our loyal, tireless farmers.

John F. Kennedy, Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, Des Moines, Iowa, Kennedy-Johnson Midwest Farm Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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