The following is another brief excerpt from my yet unpublished memoir, “Muckville: Farm Policy, Media and the Strange Oddities of Semi-Rural Life.” It deals with the backstory involving Eve and I’s first two CNN appearances.
As the 1999 growing season progressed a devastating drought began to slowly affect the eastern seaboard. By mid-August the effects and toll taken on all sorts of crops began to become evident. In late August Eve and I were contacted by CNN. I got a call from producer Frances Causey. She had come across some of my materials regarding crop insurance and asked if we would mind being interviewed for a story about the drought and the problems with crop insurance. We happily agreed. I sent Frances a ton of information, and then we spoke a bit about Ken Ackerman. I related all that had happened in our meetings with Glickman, how Glickman and his operatives knew how poor the onion policy was, and how the buy-up policy in particular was essentially a rip-off. And how USDA officials, and Ackerman in particular, would continue to state untrue things like “CAT was free” and the onion farmers of Orange County were in a situation that was their own fault, because the failed purchase the buy-up. This was despite Glickman saying this sort of thing would stop. I also told her what happened with American Vegetable Grower and how USDA put pressure on the magazine to pull the USDA official’s offending quote.
(Note: Frances Causey is the Producer and Co-Director of the fantastic documentary “Heist: Who Stole The American Dream.” http://www.heist-themovie.com/theTeam.html)
She told me that CNN planned on interviewing Ackerman as they interviewed Eve and I for the story. I told Causey that Ackerman and the USDA would certainly try to pull the same sort of stunt that they did with American Vegetable Grower a year before.
On August 17th, 1999, veteran CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman and crew came to our farm to interview us. Like Randall Pinkston of CBS Tuchman was very friendly and kind. They spent much of the day interviewing Maire Ullrich, the vegetable crop agent at the time for Cornell cooperative Extension, Eve and me. The piece was outstanding (it had one small error, it stated I had CAT coverage at the time but in 1999 we actually had the buy-up, despite how bad it was.) It was a pretty devastating indictment of the current crop insurance program. Ackerman was interviewed separately in Washington by a stringer crew. And Ackerman, predictably, placed the blame everywhere but himself and the Agency. The piece reported:
“’Our program is often very bureaucratic,’ said Ken Ackerman of the department. We have a number of legal restraints that make it difficult for us to respond to situations.” Tuchman then states. ‘But Ken Ackerman says that the current system of taxpayer-supported crop insurance, for which farmers pay just a small fee, often should be supplemented with so-called ‘buy up’ policies for extra coverage.”
So, once again Ackerman attempted to mislead the press and public regarding the true cost or value of CAT and wrongly blame the farmers for their current predicament. Though very pleased with the piece, which ran the evening of August 17,1999 and also multiple times on CNN’s Headline News channel, I was very angry about Ackerman’s quotes and implied blame. After the piece aired I spoke with Butch May at USDA and told him to tell Ackerman that “I thought his mommy dressed him very nice for his TV interview.”
You may wonder, even though it held such little value, why on earth did we buy the buy-up policy for the 1999 growing season? Because of Eve and my view that we did have a responsibility to assist in managing our risk. So, though a waste of money, we felt that the position of having bought it strengthened our ability to work within
the framework of the system to fix the policy. We figured, it would be kind of hard to argue for a “No Stages” program if we didn’t actively participate within the system. So, we bit the bullet and bought it. And to this day we believe it was a factor in motivating Grau to put so much pressure on RMA/FCIC and the various bureaucrats to get us that pilot and listen to our concerns. Of course Congressman Gilman putting incessant pressure on them helped.
As the summer progressed into autumn it quickly began to sink in how bad the losses from the drought were and how little even our buy-up policies were going to help. In early October, CNN producer Frances Causey called us and asked how things were going. We told her the drought was worse than even we thought it would be and the year was going to be a real body blow. She asked if they could interview us for a rare follow-up story and we happily agreed. She also said that this time she would be coming out with reporter Gary Tuchman and crew.
Causey, Tuchman and crew arrived on October 14th to shoot the 2nd story. Once again Tuchman was very kind, matched only by the warmth expressed by Causey. As we re-capped what had developed since their first story Frances, while laughing, detailed what happened with the Ken Ackerman interview. She was simply amazed that Ackerman and USDA did exactly what I predicted they would do, how he would imply CAT was free and the farmers were at fault for not buying the virtually worthless buy-up (we told Frances the one small error in the piece was that we did in fact have the buy-up insurance for the 1999 crop year but inexplicably they reported again that we only had CAT) and she confirmed that Ackerman and USDA were very displeased with the portions involving him in the August piece. “Ackerman and the USDA implied we took him out of context but look at this,” she then pulled out a document from her bag and continued, “this is the word for word transcript of his interview. He didn’t say what he said just once, he kept repeating it over and over again.” What a surprise … not.
The 2nd piece aired all day on October 15th and it too packed an incredible punch.
It was at this point that Eve and I kicked it into high gear in regards to not only fighting for changes to the crop insurance program but also for a special disaster aid program for the onion growers of Orange County. This was now the third devastating year out of four and we needed some sort of special assistance to continue to survive as an industry in our region. When we first started raising the possibility of such aid in 1998 we were told by Representative Gilman’s press secretary that it was an “unrealistic request.”
But when you are wiped out three out of four years you don’t accept such a rejection. In 1999 President Clinton signed a $1.4 billion ad-hoc disaster aid package passed by Congress. The structure and formulation of that ad- hoc disaster aid program was based on the very same federal crop insurance program which made necessary that aid package to begin with. Well, we knew we would need more targeted help. In the October 1999 CNN piece Tuchman reported our assessment that the aid package would only provide us with pennies on the dollar on our losses. And when it was eventually appropriated we learned that we were correct.