By Tom Parker

In February of 1979, thousands of disgruntled farmers flooded the streets of Washington D.C. with an estimated 900 tractors and hundreds of support vehicles. The uniquely American protest was organized by the American Agriculture Movement, whose members felt that government and industry leaders were out of touch with the needs of farmers, and that crop prices should reflect production costs. Though their demands for 100 percent parity were not shared by many members of Congress, Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, a newly-elected senator from Kansas who opposed full parity while empathizing with their concerns, met with them on the National Mall to try to find common ground.

In a photograph taken at the time, Baker is all but invisible in the crowd, a small, slender woman surrounded by hundreds of burly farmers.

Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., talks with a Washington police officer as the meets with farmers from Kansas on Capitol Hill on Feb. 7, 1979.

Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., talks with a Washington police officer as the meets with farmers from Kansas on Capitol Hill on Feb. 7, 1979. Kassebaum went from her office
to the area where protesting farmers had parked their tractors to listen to complaints about farm prices and treatment by Washington police. (Associated Press)

“It was a strong issue, and nothing was harder than to see friends dying off and losing their farms,” she said. “Nothing made more of an impression on me than watching the tractorcade come to Washington. It was monumental, a showing of what was really tearing at the heart of agriculture at the time. There was a lot of despair, and many were fighting back. The tractorcade symbolized true grit.”

It also illustrated the emotional and psychological inconsistencies within the ranks of the protestors over what should be expected from the protest. On the one hand they felt that a show of force could be the catalyst for political change, and on the other hand they had doubts about Congress’s willingness to act on their behalf.

They had made the long, slow journey to Washington, D.C., only to find themselves at a different destination altogether, and one reflected in a speech Baker presented in 1996 before retiring from the U.S. Senate. “America,” she said, “has always lived at the intersection where hope meets doubt.”

Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker

Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker provided a sobering look at some of the parallels bridging yesterday’s farm crisis to what many feel is a modern crisis in the making.

Baker’s retrospective of the farm crisis, “Thoughts and reflections on the farm crisis of the 1980s, and how we came through it,” was presented during the Kansas Farmers Union 2017 convention held in Emporia on Dec. 1-2. The convention’s theme, “Bridges,” focused on building rapport with others who hold different viewpoints and the necessity of finding common ground, both traits that are as important now as they were back in the 1980s, Baker said. The session was moderated by Nick Levendofsky, former Kansas Farmers Union vice president and currently government relations associate with the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

Baker, the daughter of Alf Landon, who served as Kansas governor from 1933 to 1937, and the widow of former Senator and diplomat Howard Baker, represented Kansas in the U.S. Senate from 1978 to 1997. As a woman, she is noted for several landmarks in national and state politics. She was the first woman ever elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate without her husband having previously served in Congress; the first woman to represent Kansas in the U.S. Senate; and the second woman elected to a U.S. Senate seat without it first being held by her husband or appointed to complete a deceased husband’s terms. She is currently an Advisory Board member for the Partnership for a Secure America, and a member of the ReFormers Caucus of Issue One.

After reminding Baker of her speech, Levendofsky read its conclusion. “The anxiety we are experiencing is not new. As we address today’s problems and clear our path to tomorrow, we would be wise to seek advice from yesterday.”

“It sounded like a key theme for where we are today in America,” he said

Baker agreed. Rural communities are still dwindling, rural counties are still emptying, farmers are still struggling, and generational succession on family farms is stiff dying off. In her own family with seven grandchildren, she said, she doubts any will return to take over operations.

Addressing the underlying problems will have to rely on different approaches, she added, and that former solutions might not be applicable.

“The ag economy is suffering again today, and how it’s addressed will have to be different,” she said. “No one would have tractorcades to Washington now, there wouldn’t be enough. We need to think of the future and try to see where we’re going. What I see is important to the future is being able to communicate better within our communities, and that’s not easy because we all have different views.”

People must be dedicated to their communities, they must be vocal, and they must act, she said. And, to some extent, the solution lies in political action.

“That’s where some of the answers lie, and it starts at the local level,” Baker said. “We need local and state and federal. We need to be willing to talk and to discuss difficult things. And we have to be honest about where they balance out. It’s vital to how we move forward.”

The idea of balance in today’s political forum is something of an oxymoron, and Baker is deeply troubled by what she sees as a lack of respect for the institutions of government, especially the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Our dedication to the importance of the independence of those three institutions has eroded, she said, and we’re losing sight of how vital they are to our democratic form of government.

Regulations and bills are ramrodded through without oversight hearings or debate. The Republican tax bill was a prime example of that, she said. When Baker served under President Ronald Reagan, the tax bill was debated for months. The current tax bill was thrown together in record time with minimal debate and without participation from the democrats. Now, after reading everything she can find about the new tax bill, she doesn’t have a clue what’s in it and she doubts anyone else does, either.

Nick Levendofsky and Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker

Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker was interviewed by Nick Levendofsky, former Kansas Farmers Union vice president and currently government relations associate with the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

The idea of making adjustments to the tax bill after it’s been passed doesn’t sit well with her, either. “That’s not the way it should be,” she said. “And if President Trump gets up and explains how glorious this is, and how this is the only time we have to pass this wonderful tax break for all people, then let’s see his tax returns.”

President Eisenhower’s farewell speech had much to say about balance, Baker said, and she believes his words are as applicable today as they were then. The temptation to meet crises through costly actions, unrealistic programs promising to cure every ill and dramatic expansions in research and technology need to be weighed by the need to maintain balance in and among national programs, Eisenhower said. Good judgment seeks balance and progress, and the lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.

Levendofsky was reminded of another speech she had made where she offered a proposal of informed democracy in action. “It is not enough that we watch the evening news, read a newspaper, that we pay our taxes and vote,” Baker had said. “Our duties as citizens go beyond that—to know what decisions are before our communities and our state, and to take part in shaping them.”

America finds itself once again at the intersection where hope meets doubt, and the political aspects aren’t encouraging. Solutions must come from the people, Baker said. What we say now, what we do now, will be of upmost importance in how we shape our future.

The convention was sponsored by Midwest Regional Agency, Farmers Union Insurance and the Frontier Farm Credit. Kansas Farmers Union is the state’s oldest active general farm organization working to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for family farmers, ranchers and rural communities.