Farm program pork in the eye of the beholder

It would be funny, if it weren't so serious, the Pavlovian response of the big city editorial writers and the anti-farming organizations to Congress' agricultural appropriations.

“Subsidies to rich farmers,” “Millionaire farmers get more gravy,” the headlines trumpet. The Boston Globe, adding a twist of irony, headlined its editorial, “Farmers in need,” and then proceed to note that “subsidies are not need-based and go overwhelmingly to large commercial farms producing cotton, wheat, corn, and other grains.”

Business Week magazine weighed in with an article entitled “Pork from Congress.” Here's the lead sentence: “Welfare lives. No, not that welfare. The old federal handout for poor mothers and their children is long gone. But the real welfare queens of U.S. society — the energy and agriculture businesses — are still on the dole, big-time.”

Most of the media attention occurred following a report from the take-agriculture-back-to-the-mule-and-plow-era Environmental Working Group, which analyzed data on millions of farm program checks during the 1996-2000 period.

It has long been a bone of contention for the EWG that more of the government farm support pie doesn't go to small farmers, and they make much ado of the money paid to large corporate farms and absentee landlords such as ABC-TV newsman Peter Jennings, university farm operations, and even a monastery.

Makes good fodder for the talking heads and the metropolitan editorial writers, who haven't the foggiest notion how the nation's food and fiber are produced.

Nor do they bother to cite the data on who produces how much in this country and note how little of the total production comes from the small farms they champion.

Some 90 percent of the nation's food/fiber output comes from about 150,000 commercial-size farming operations.

Were we to rely on the hundreds of thousands of small hobby and “sundowner” farm operations to sustain this nation's bounty, a lot of folks might sing a different tune about government payments to agriculture.

Granted, some of the larger farming operations are owned by large corporations. A few family farming operations are, in themselves, major corporations. But bigness does not automatically mean profitability, particularly in today's markets, with cotton and grain prices at Depression-era levels.

Food security, as other nations have learned the hard way, comes at a price.

No other country on the face of the earth cranks out the volume per acre of quality food and fiber that the United States does. Citizens of no other country get as much value for their yearly food expenditures as we do.

But the well-fed, well-clothed, well-paid opponents are continually sniping at what they consider the outrageous costs of agricultural supports.

The Baltimore Sun, in a column published after passage of the House farm bill in October, sneered at “Farm aid fleecing wrapped in flag.”

“Fear not! Our nation won't lose its vital peanut crop,” it said. “Even horse breeders will get new government loans. So don't worry: The U.S. cavalry will charge again.”

It went on and on in the same vein: “The biggest farmers are the most patriotic. To preserve our corporate family farms, the top 8 percent of all farmers will receive more than 50 percent of this federal largess, while the bottom 50 percent will receive only 13 percent of the money.”

Would, one wonders, more money to the 13 percent significantly increase their contribution to the country's food/fiber output? If we took ALL the money away from the top 8 percent, would the small farmers take up the slack and keep the store shelves full?

Yeah, sure.

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