Down on The Farm

Monday, November 5th, 2007

Michael Grunwald is Down on The Farm — or at least on the farm bill:

Agricultural policy is not sexy. You probably don’t know the intricacies of “loan deficiency payments” or “base acreage,” and you probably don’t care. This was once an agrarian nation, but now there’s a less than 1% chance that you’re a farmer, and if you are, you’re probably part time; the average farm family gets 82% of its income from nonfarm sources. We’re not a people of the soil anymore, and for most of us, our eyes glaze over when we see farm statistics like the ones in that last sentence.

But farms still cover most of our land, consume most of our water and produce most of our food. If you eat, drink or pay taxes — or care about the economy, the environment or our global reputation — U.S. agricultural policy is a big deal.

It’s also a horrible deal. It redistributes our taxes to millionaire farmers as well as to millionaire “farmers” like David Letterman, David Rockefeller and the owners of the Utah Jazz. It contributes to our obesity and illegal-immigration epidemics and to our water and energy shortages. It helps degrade rivers, deplete aquifers, eliminate grasslands, concentrate food-processing conglomerates and inundate our fast-food nation with high-fructose corn syrup. Our farm policy is supposed to save small farmers and small towns. Instead it fuels the expansion of industrial megafarms and the depopulation of rural America. It hurts Third World farmers, violates international trade deals and paralyzes our efforts to open foreign markets to the nonagricultural goods and services that make up the remaining 99% of our economy.

Ever since the 1980s, when a wave of foreclosures inspired those iconic Farm Aid concerts, the media’s sporadic reports from farm country have tended to focus on floods, droughts and other disasters. But the farm crisis is as over as Barbara Mandrell. Farm incomes are at an all-time high. The median farmer enjoys five times the net worth of the median nonfarmer household. Crop prices have soared–thanks largely to the Federal Government’s promotion of corn ethanol over more efficient renewable energies — and yet subsidies have as well.

Nevertheless, Congress is finalizing a $286 billion farm bill that will continue our basic farm policies, which means it will keep funneling money to farmers and pseudo farmers through a bewildering array of loans, price supports, subsidized insurance, disaster aid and money-for-nothing handouts that arrive when times are tough — or not tough. “What a joke,” grumbles Congressman Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat who led a failed bipartisan reform effort in the House. “You’re eligible as long as you’re breathing.” Actually, that’s not quite true. Since the vast majority of the cash goes to five row crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice — more than 60% of our farmers receive no subsidies. And a recent Government Accountability Office report identified $1.1 billion of subsidies whose recipients were no longer breathing.

Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration started farm aid in response to the Dust Bowl and the Depression, calling it “a temporary solution to deal with an emergency.” But in Washington, the emergency has never ended.

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