Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of farmers in general and big farmers in particular. Part of this, I suppose, goes with having roots in Iowa soil. But mostly, it's a reaction to the smug superiority displayed in print by Michael Pollan and other writers, who disdain any farmer who'd actually like to earn a living from farming, and in person by the urban farmers and market gardeners who feel the only real agriculture has to be small, organic and shoestring. In my book, big farmers who see it as their task to feed the world -- who provide the yields and exports that keep starvation at bay around the globe -- are heroes.
But sometimes, oh my, these big farmers -- or rather, the lobbyists and politicians who speak for them -- sure do make it hard to stand up and cheer.
The reason is the sheer greed and market distortions wrapped into the farm bill which, once again, Congress is about to consider. It would be nice to think that finally, this year, Congress will defeat the bill, if only because in a budget that needs trimming, this trillion-dollar bill offers a lot of low-hanging fruit. But the bill benefits constituents in a few states, mostly Midwestern, that specialize in a few favored crops, like corn and soybeans, so the members of Congress from these days will fight to save every dime, while members from other states, who really don't care that much, will go along.
Over the years, the farm bill has become a disgrace, and much has been written on it. A good recent recap of the costs and issues appeared recently in the New York Times, by the veteran reporter Robert B. Semple Jr.
As Semple points out, the current farm bill is no less than a perversion of the original farm bill, started in the New Deal to protect small farmers from the market and the weather and to keep small family farmers from being forced out of business. Today, it is one of the factors forcing these family farmers to fold, simply because it gives most of the subsidies to the big farmers (2,000 acres or more), providing these mega-farmers with payouts that they use to buy out the small farmer next door.
The reason is that most aid goes to big cash crops -- corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice. These are row crops, most efficiently grown by the big, highly mechanized mega-farmers who provide the bulk of the crops. In other words, most of the aid goes to the farmers who grow the most: no less than 80 percent of the subsidies go to the biggest 20 percent of the farmers. In the past, this has been direct subsidies, In the future, this will be changed largely to crop insurance, protecting farmers against any price drop or reduced crops. The result, though, will be the same: them that has is gonna get. And part of what they're gonna get is the money to buy other farms, and get even bigger.
In truth, this only reinforces a trend toward bigness that would be there anyway. Modern agriculture is big business, tied into big agribusiness corporations like Cargill, who sign contracts with the big farmer, because these farmers can provide the quality control and just-in-time deliveries that are beyond most smaller farmers. This is where the bigness-bashers get it wrong. There are billions of workers in emerging nations, such as China and India, which can't feed themselves. If they are going to be fed, it's these big farmers and big corporations who will do. I'm hard pressed to see the evil in this.
No, the evil lies in sending billions of taxpayers dollars to big farmers who simply don't need the money. Some don't even want it. I've talked with big farmers, independent and ornery by nature, who hate any form of government interference in their business and would trade the subsidies for more freedom.
Congress instead should use the farm bill to impose environmental standards on big farms -- prohibitions on playing from fence line to fence line, for instance -- and to subsidize research in how to keep yields high with minimum use of pesticides and other chemicals that poison too much of the Midwest's land and too many of its rivers. The solution is not to ban these chemicals, as the organic boosters want, nor to outlaw genetically modified foods: organic farming will never provide the yields that a hungry world needs. But we're already learning how to reach high yields with less environmental damage, and any government action should be aimed at speeding up this research.
The twee crowd is winning the public debate over farming and the big farmers are losing it. It seems incredible that an industry that does so much basic good -- feeding the world -- should have such a bad public reputation. But farmers and their supporters are shooting themselves in their own image. By milking the taxpayer for unneeded subsidies, and by insisting on squeezing every last dollar out of their over-used land, these farmers end up being ranked in the greed game with Wall Street bankers with whom, believe me, they have nothing else in common.