Published on Sunday, April 10, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
Reform Farm Policy for the Public Good
by Jim French
I am a farmer and a rancher, in a line of four generations of farmers and ranchers before me. Each day I consider the variables of weather, soil, money, time and, not in a little way, government policies and programs. Like most farms and ranches, mine is built with local, regional and global building blocks.
People in agriculture know that shifting one element can change farming’s whole pattern. A hailstorm here, a disease outbreak there, an adjustment in policy one year and a federal deficit the next -- each can greatly affect success or failure.
For natural calamity, there’s not much we can do but be prepared. But with policy, we can all shape the future to avoid disaster.
Unfortunately we are failing.
Consider how farms receive public support. Farmers get subsidies based on how many acres they farm and how many bushels they produce. Since there are no government limits on how many acres a farmer can plant, the American taxpayer funds a system that fuels the engine of commodity overproduction and farm expansion.
More than 78 percent of U.S. production subsidies funnel to 8 percent of the nation’s producers. A grossly inflated cap of $360,000 and loopholes allowing multiple payments let many huge operations and absentee owners receive over $1 million apiece in tax dollars each year. The lion’s share of farm payments originally meant as a safety net for farmers now goes to those who least need the money.
This system drives big operations to get even bigger. According to the latest agricultural census, more than 400,000 farms have gone out of business or been consolidated into larger operations since 1978.
And when subsidy-driven surpluses of cotton, rice, wheat and corn flood world markets, more than small- and medium-sized U.S. farms suffer. Developing nations like Africa’s Mali, Mozambique and Senegal have no tax-supported safety nets. Their cotton producers on small landholdings cannot compete against subsidized U.S. cotton that is sold below the cost of production. So families go out of business, move to overcrowded cities and further add to world poverty and hunger.
Ironic, isn’t it? The more we produce, the more we contribute to economic inequality both here and abroad.
What can a lone farmer suggest?
First, any change should be gradual but decisive. Taxpayers should begin by demanding that Congress cap individual farm payments at $250,000 and close loopholes that allow big farming corporations to circumvent the limit. This move already has the support of the Senate Agriculture Committee and President Bush.
In the longer term, Congress should do more to stabilize farm numbers and encourage rural development. This can be done by reinforcing programs that encourage good stewardship, not big farms and big surpluses.
One example is the Conservation Security Program. It links farm payments to practices that protect water, air and soil, enhance wildlife habitat, and encourage energy efficiency. If used as a template for future farm policy, the program could deliver big benefits. However, CSP is now seriously underfunded and only available in limited areas.
Americans must decide: Do they want to pay tax dollars to fewer and fewer, bigger and bigger farmers? Or would they rather have programs that keep more farmers worldwide on the land, increase opportunities in rural communities and preserve the world’s natural bounty for generations to come?
Jim French’s farm is in Reno County, Kan. He works on policy and conservation issues for the Kansas Rural Center. He wrote this essay for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.