In a sexual harassment shakeout, the Missouri Department of Agriculture shows its true self.

Bumpkins on Parade 

In a sexual harassment shakeout, the Missouri Department of Agriculture shows its true self.

$10,000 fine and an apology were not enough. Fred Ferrell, the Missouri Department of Agriculture director who told a state worker that he wanted to see her in a wet-T-shirt contest, was forced to resign last week when his appalling behavior made the papers.

The Highway Patrol investigated Ferrell last year, after an assistant to the state veterinarian, Heather Elder, filed a sexual harassment complaint. The report, made public on February 23, described Ferrell's penchant for applying hugs and kisses. He joked about women being unable to balance a checkbook and allegedly told an assistant director that women shouldn't supervise men.

Gov. Matt Blunt allowed Ferrell to keep his job on the condition that he complete sensitivity training and accept other disciplinary actions. But after the details of the investigation went public, Blunt finally ordered the dirty, possibly senile old man to clear his desk.

Tales of a cabinet member taking state workers into his liver-spotted clutches got me thinking about what Ferrell's department was actually supposed to be doing. One of the duties of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, presumably, is to watch over the state's crops.

A few months ago, I sent an e-mail to the department after seeing an alarming map on the Web. The map, which was posted on The New York Times' and the BBC's Web sites, showed that warmer temperatures could drive wheat production to Canada and Alaska by 2050. I wrote to ask the Department of Agriculture what it was doing about global warming. The answer: Nothing, really.

The possibility that crops could migrate across a continent in search of hospitable climates seemed like a profound topic for people who think about agriculture all day. Yet the Missouri Department of Agriculture produced zilch when I asked for its work on climate change. A spokeswoman, Misti Preston, told me in an e-mail that the department was "currently monitoring the agricultural industries to see what damage if any that the producers are facing." Doing jack shit, in other words.

Preston volunteered to address specific questions. In a return e-mail, I mentioned the wheat map. She said she hadn't seen the map and asked again for a list of questions. Sensing an onslaught of say-nothing bureaucratspeak in reply, I declined to compose such a list.

Besides, I had only one question: Is the department doing anything about climate change? As I told Preston, it's one of those "are you pregnant or not"-type questions.

At that point, communication between us ceased.

Fast Freddy's problems last week reminded me of my exchange with Preston. Both episodes suggest that state ag officials haven't exactly kept up with the times.

Retro attitudes among ag officials, it turns out, can be traced back to a source: the Missouri Farm Bureau. A powerful force in state government, the farm bureau promotes ideas at the far right end of the political spectrum. The group believes that federal bureaucracy poses the greatest threat to American democracy (except, of course, when the federal bureaucracy subsidizes crop insurance and the like). It also opposes abortion rights and supports posting the Ten Commandments in public places.

The farm bureau's 2007 philosophy (available on its Web site) also states that "there is no scientific consensus to support the theory of global warming."

The bureau's position on climate change is a little outdated. An international panel of climate scientists recently declared that global warming is "unequivocal" and that human activity is "very likely" the cause.

Conservatives may scoff at Al Gore's Hollywood pals glorifying his PowerPoint presentation with an Oscar. But Sen. John McCain, no softy, has said the argument about global warming is over. The chief executive of Exxon Mobil, a company that funded climate-change skepticism in the past, now acknowledges that automobile and industrial exhausts contribute to higher temperatures.

State farm bureaus are not known for political progressivism, but Missouri's seems particularly rooted in the bad old days. The Kansas Farm Bureau belongs to a group that promotes the technique known as carbon sequestration, a process of storing carbon dioxide in soil and plants rather than letting it float up to the heavens. In addition to its environmental benefits, sequestration has economic potential because there's an emerging market for carbon credits, in which storage of carbon dioxide can be bought and sold.

The Missouri Farm Bureau, however, seems to regard carbon sequestration as a part of a pinko plot. The group is officially worried about the ag industry getting involved in carbon trading, noting that the dreaded Kyoto Protocol contained a provision for selling carbon credits.

Last week, I put in a call to the Missouri Farm Bureau's headquarters in Jefferson City to talk about climate change. I was transferred eventually to Joyce Patterson, a farm bureau legislative specialist. She took my name and said she'd get back to me. So far, she hasn't.

As I waited for Patterson's return call, I noticed that Missouri Farm Bureau President Chuck Kruse had bid a fond farewell to Fred Ferrell on the front page of the organization's Web site. Kruse commended the departed department head for doing "a superb job on behalf of agriculture and Missouri farmers."

Kruse could not bring himself to acknowledge the reason that Ferrell's superb work would not continue. "It is unfortunate that circumstances led to the resignation of Fred Ferrell as director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture," his statement read.

Kruse made it sound as though Ferrell left the organization after falling off a ladder while cleaning his gutters, not because he referred to his secretary as a "show dog." Kruse's admiration for Ferrell — the two men both hail from the bootheel — seems to help explain why the governor permitted Director Smoochy to hold on to his position as long as he did.

As Ferrell retreats to his corn and cattle farm down in Charleston, the Missouri Farm Bureau remains a force in Jefferson City. (State Sen. Tim Green of St. Louis once said it had a "stranglehold" on the Legislature.) But its power is partly a sham. You see, anyone who buys Town and Country auto insurance and other products the Missouri Farm Bureau sells automatically becomes listed as a dues-paying member. Those inflated membership rolls undoubtedly include folks who may not share the Farm Bureau's positions on school prayer (allow it) and gay marriage (forbid it).

As Ken Midkiff, a former Sierra Club organizer, notes, "There are, no doubt, people in Kansas City who have Farm Bureau Insurance because it is cheap."

Wheat growers and women who can balance checkbooks might want to examine their policies. <

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