Do We Need Farm Subsidies?

Do We Need Farm Subsidies?


This has been one of those oft whispered questions in Washington and beyond, but it’ll most likely never get answered because everybody knows it’s political poison. After all, who wants to be labeled as anti-farmer?

But the reality of the American farmer is much different than those days of a tightknit family working their land for all its worth. That’s not to say that those situations don’t still exist…but…

From Wash Post:

Today, most of the nation’s food is produced by modern family farms that are large operations using state-of-the-art computers, marketing consultants and technologies that cut labor, time and costs. The owners are frequently college graduates who are as comfortable with a spreadsheet as with a tractor. They cover more acres and produce more crops with fewer workers than ever before.

The very policies touted by Congress as a way to save small family farms are instead helping to accelerate their demise, economists, analysts and farmers say. That’s because owners of large farms receive the largest share of government subsidies. They often use the money to acquire more land, pushing aside small and medium-size farms as well as young farmers starting out. […]

Large family farms, defined as those with revenue of more than $250,000, account for nearly 60 percent of all agricultural production but just 7 percent of all farms. They receive more than 54 percent of government subsidies. And their share of federal payments is growing — more than doubling over the past decade for the biggest farms.

Ultimately, we’re going to have accept that we’re funding a vast corporate infrastructure with welfare checks. It doesn’t matter that these are farmers, it’s still corporate welfare. So either we start to move away from that or we begin to redistribute some of this money so the government isn’t funding the formation of regional agricultural monopolies.

I mean…tell me the following situation doesn’t make your blood boil…

From the perch of his $180,000 six-row combine, churning through cornfields that stretch as far as the eye can see, John Phipps has a rare view of American farm policy. […]

Today, he calls himself an “industrial farmer” who uses computers, technology and science to get the most out of the 1,800 acres of corn and soybeans he plants in an area of Illinois where the weather and soil are ideal for farming. The strategy has paid off with bigger and better yields.

Yet to Congress and federal agricultural officials, Phipps and his wife, Jan, are struggling family farmers. Last year, the government sent the Phippses a check for $120,000. Thousands of similar checks arrived throughout the Corn Belt, even as many farmers had bumper crops.

Ridiculous stuff. We can do better.

Any farmers out there who want to share their story?

  • wj

    We have lots of subsidies we no longer need (if we ever did). The question is, how to get rid of them? Maybe someone else has stories to tell of how some subsidy or other got removed. But as far as I can recall, the only way a subsuidy, any subsidy, gets removed is
    a) a national emergency results in a call for everybody to sacrifice something, or
    b) they get replaced by another (probably worse) subsidy.

    Subsidies hurt everybody, but they are like the nagging ache that you never quite get around to having someone treat. However, each one helps a specific group, which therefore fights vigorously to keep and improve it — and with the only weapon that politicians react to: money. So bad as agricultural subsidies are, for consumers (i.e. all of us), for the poor farmers of the world, and for the environment, don’t look for them to do anything by grow any time soon.

  • Aaron

    How about the biggest subsidy around, mortgage interest deduction?

  • sleipner

    I’ve heard that our subsidies to farmers are one of the biggest reasons farmers in Africa have such a hard time of it…they just can’t compete. Granted, we probably wouldn’t allow their imports for fear of diseases anyway…

    Of course subsidies to farmers reduce costs on one of the primary expenses for low income families – food. So theoretically, farmer subsidies are an indirect form of welfare (which one would think the Republicans would hate – God forbid poor people ever get any help)

    I really have no answer on that question – though I’m all for reducing costs for those who can’t really afford anything, I also don’t particularly like huge wasteful governmental programs that give money to companies that don’t need it. Whether farming is one of those companies is something that needs to be subjected to extensive analysis, rather than just continuing on the path determined decades ago by politicians who had no clue.

  • Vicki Frei

    Er…. Aaron, I guess you don’t own a home?

  • Dave Schuler

    I guess that depends on who “us” is, sleipnir. U. S. farm subsidies are miniscule relative to total production by comparison with EU farm subsidies. And the U. S. doesn’t export that much to Africa compared to the EU, either.

    It also depends on what you call a “subsidy”. I was taught that subsidies were more than just direct tax grants, for example, import duties and quotas are, too. It’s easier for other countries’ goods to come into the U. S. than practically anywhere else.

    The idea that the problems of Africa’s farmers would be over if only the bad U. S. were to end its farm subsidies is romantic fiction. It would have very little effect on African farmers whose main problem is that there are too many of them and they’re too inefficient for world markets.

    It’s not just the developed world that subsidizes its agriculture BTW. Vietnam’s decades-long coffee subsidies have thrown the world coffee market into a cocked hat, particularly injuring African and Latin American farmers. China subsidizes its farmers, too, and is a major exporter of agricultural goods to Africa and Latin America.

  • Jim S

    Dave has it right. The international component is what complicates things immensely.

  • sleipner

    I think the biggest problem is that most countries are taking an us vs. them approach, even to the point of, “how can I deliberately screw my international opponents” rather than trying to reach a common consensus about what arrangement would be best for everyone involved and for world market stability and structure.