It is not a new argument; it surfaces every time a Farm Bill comes up for debate in Congress. Farmers get lots of bad press because they take subsidies from the government while making millions from high grain prices which drive up the cost of food. Do a Google news search with the words farm and subsidies, and you will get over 7,000 news stories, none of which are positive toward farmers. In most of these stories, farm subsidies are criticized as being “unnecessary” and farmers are demonized for making a profit off food production.
Those who label farm subsidies as unnecessary never look into why they were created in the first place. First of all, government programs that provide payments to producers are many and quite varied, yet get lumped into one big pot called subsidies. The impression that is given to the public is that all you need to qualify for a farm subsidy is some land, a barn, and a mailbox. The public is led to believe that each month the postman fills a famer’s mailbox with thousands of tax payer dollars. Anyone who has been to an FAS office knows the bewildering complexity of most federal farm programs and the mountains of paperwork required o qualify for these programs.
The majority of farm subsidy programs were started because Congress wanted low food prices and wanted to avoid food price spikes, especially around election time. The way to do this was to take the risk out of food production. In the 1960s and 1970s, the government actually managed food production by paying some farmers to grow certain crops while paying others not to grow certain crops. Beginning in 1985, this policy began to change in favor of letting the free market set the price and determine production. Since then farm programs have become more market-oriented, and taxpayer dollars going to direct payments has tumbled. The new Farm Bill being drafted in Congress today would eliminate almost all direct payments to farmers.
The media loves to report of “Billionaire Farmers get Tax Payer Dollars.” While there are likely some abuses as there are in any government program, the majority of government program payments are not going to fat cats lying on tome tropical beach in the Caribbean. Over 90% of US farmers are family-owned farms; and, while that family farm may be incorporated and may be a multimillion dollar operation, they are also the people working the land and taking the risks.
I guess that is what gets me really riled up. Farm families work hard and take enormous risks to produce the food, fuel, and fiber we all take for granted. Why? To make a living — in other words, to make money. The concept of taking a risk and working hard in order to reap a financial reward is the bedrock of the capitalistic free market system. Yet today, those who do this are criticized and despised and expected to share their reward with the rest of the community. The Obama Administration has been advocating this in both public statements and policy incentives. “The truth is, in order to get things like universal health care and a revamped education system, the someone is going to have to give up a piece of their pie so that someone else can have more,” Michelle Obama states.
I am also infuriated by the fact that those who are some of the loudest critics of farm programs are also the biggest champions of subsidies for oil companies, car makers, New York banks, and PBS. Let’s face it, what is it more important to have: a consistent and reliable supply of food on the table or Big Bird on the TV?
Farm programs need to be revised, loopholes closed, and in some cases programs canceled. The same can be said for energy, housing, Medicaid, student loans, and many other government subsidy programs. We also need to get rid of this concept that farmers, even ones with million dollar operations, should not make money.
Farming is a business that produces a valuable product at high risk and high cost. Government programs that provide farmers the incentive to produce our food and the safety net to insure their sustainability, benefits all of us.
By Gary Truitt