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Cartoon angers farmers in Janesville area

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Greg Peck
February 12, 2014

I've worked at The Gazette more than 26 years and have been Opinion Page editor for almost 11. In the past decade, I can only remember a few times when someone called to complain about an editorial cartoon. I don't recall more than one caller criticizing any specific cartoon—until last week, that is.

If you missed last Friday's cartoon about the farm bill, I'm reprinting it here. It was crafted by Phil Hands of the Wisconsin State Journal and ran in that Madison-based statewide newspaper first. We've been running Hands cartoons through syndication for several years, and he often does a great job of incorporating statewide issues into his colorful commentaries.

This cartoon jabbed farmers about the new farm bill that cleared Congress and President Obama just signed. In general, the farmers who called me suggested the cartoon was unfair because the large majority of the farm bill goes to food stamps. These callers complained that the cartoon suggests farmers don't work hard and, pardon the pun, live high off the hog.

The first caller lit into me, stating that because I was the person who chose to run the cartoon, I obviously never worked on a farm, nor do I understand how hard farmers work or how much they spend on tractors and other implements. I pointed out that most of my uncles were farmers and that I, in fact, had worked on one of those farms.

I know full well how hard farmers work and their massive investments. My uncle, I believe, went to his grave never taking time away from his dairy herd for a true vacation.

The first caller and another said we'd better enlighten people about how much of the farm bill goes to food stamps. I responded that I was sure we had already done that. We did so again Monday in a wire story that pointed out that only about 15 percent of the almost $100 billion-a-year outlay goes to farmers, while most of the rest goes to food stamps.

I asked this caller if he was trying to tell me that no farmers around here get government subsidies. He couldn't claim that but continued to rant. I repeatedly urged him to write a letter to the editor sharing his views. He suggested he might do that by getting other angered farmers to help him and then all could sign it before he sent it in.

He hung up before I got a chance to point out that we limit the number of signers on any letter to two.

Consider the cartoon for a moment. The farmer on the tractor says “I can't stand lazy people on welfare. I work hard for my handout.” Is it really suggesting farmers don't work hard?

Hands told me he also faced quite a bit of anger from readers about the cartoon. I asked him to explain his thought process on this image and editorial cartooning in general.

A cartoon, he responded in an email to me, does not need to be fair.

“A cartoon is a visual representation of an opinion, and opinions aren't fair to all parties. I drew this cartoon in particular because in my opinion much of the agriculture industry is propped up with government subsidies and price controls, while many of the people that participate in the industry pride themselves on being self-made individuals.

“I think it's important to point out that doesn't imply that farmers are lazy. I have great respect for the hours they work and difficulty of the job. The farmer does in fact 'work hard' for his subsidy. But we live in a world where hard work does not always lead to profitability. Just ask someone working two jobs at minimum wage who still needs food stamps.”

Maybe, Hands suggested, this explanation only will incense farmers even more.

“But from what I understand, most of them are pretty hardy and tough. They can probably handle a little criticism,” he concluded.

The cartoon might suggest, as one ag industry professional told me, that farmers work hard but not smart if the government must provide subsidies. What everyone should keep in mind, he urged, is that a huge gap exists between what consumers pay for food and what farmers get to produce it. Milk is an obvious example.

All of us should appreciate what farmers here and across the country do. Without them, we'd be fighting to import most of our food like many countries do.

If you think that cartoon maligned farmers and you live in The Gazette's circulation area, send us a letter by email or regular mail, and we'd be happy to print it. The word limit is 250, and please include your name, phone number and address.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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