With initial steps already being taken toward a new U.S. farm bill, a small group of agricultural economists is likely to have a huge impact on the legislation’As ultimate direction.
Not that such a role is anything new. Since the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) was established more than 25 years ago, congressional actions involving basic farm policies, disaster measures, trade agreements and agricultural budgets, as well as speeches by government leaders on those and related subjects, have relied on the expertise of this coterie of specialized economists.
And while FAPRI’s research efforts are based at the University of Missouri and Iowa State University, it has a historical link to Auburn University and working ties to other land grant universities.
According to Dr. Patrick Westhoff, who became director of FAPRI’s University of Missouri arm this year, the organization works with colleagues at Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Arizona State and the University of Arkansas. Known specifically as the Center for National Food and Agricultural Policy (CNFAP), the Missouri staff includes 12 full-time members along with some part-time and graduate student help.
The Iowa State unit is called the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) and specializes in international data and projections for grains, oilseeds, livestock, dairy and sugar, as well as U.S. crop insurance alternatives.
When FAPRI was launched in 1984 with a grant from Congress, the first director of the University of Missouri arm was Abner Womack. Womack, who is still on the FAPRI staff, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree in mathematics from Auburn. He subsequently received a doctorate in agricultural economics from the University of Minnesota and worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) before joining the Missouri staff in 1979.
While at ERS, Womack specialized in econometric models that focused on the structure of the global food system. After he moved to the University of Missouri, his background made the school a logical place to go when the federal government opted to seek the expertise needed for objective qualitative analysis of agricultural policy alternatives.
FAPRI’s analysis uses complex mathematical models of the crop and livestock sectors, and generates data on farm income, government costs and consumer food costs under various farm program scenarios.
The often disparate views politicians have on farm programs add an extra challenge to FAPRI’s work, Westhoff said.
"We can’t alter the information our analysis provides, but it does help to be sensitive and knowledgeable about where people are coming from," he added.
The evolving environment surrounding the making of agricultural policy means FAPRI’s analysis often must consider new issues.
"Biofuels and climate change are two examples," Westhoff said, "and there no doubt will be others down the road we haven’t even thought of yet."
While work on farm legislation is an especially tense and fast-paced period, FAPRI’s tasks go well beyond that. Each year, the organization prepares baseline projections for the U.S. farm sector and international commodity markets. These multi-year projections provide a starting point for evaluating and comparing situations involving variables like weather, technology, macroeconomic factors and policy changes. Published as FAPRI Outlooks, the data are used by farmers, agribusinesses, government agencies and officials, and others who do medium-range and long-term planning.
In making its projections, FAPRI analysts start with a preliminary baseline first reviewed by a panel of experts drawn from USDA, various international organizations, land grant and other university systems, Extension service specialists and industry. Comments and suggestions from the review process are considered in preparing the final baseline, which is used for policy analysis throughout the rest of the year.
FAPRI’s reputation for expertise and objectivity has expanded its working relationships to include overseas nations. When the European Union was working on major changes to its Common Agricultural Policy, FAPRI’s experts provided analysis and data needed for decision-making. The organization also has a working agreement with Ireland and has worked with South Africa and Latin American nations as well.
Because about 40 percent of FAPRI’s income is from the federal government, the current emphasis on budget cutting could have an impact on the organization.
"We just don’t know at this point," Westhoff noted, "but clearly there are concerns about that."
Except for a four-year stint on the staff of U.S. Senator Frank Leahy, Westhoff has been with FAPRI since its inception, first at the Iowa State unit and, starting in 1996, at Missouri. Raised on an Iowa dairy farm, he earned a doctorate in agricultural economics at Iowa State and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Iowa and the University of Texas, respectively. In addition to his FAPRI post, he is a professor in Missouri’s department of agricultural and applied economics.