How many times must we pay for the same vegetables?

Back in 1996, Congress swore it was finally going to wean American farmers off taxpayer subsidies with the “Freedom to Farm” law. The law “allowed” farmers greater flexibility in their planting decisions and moved toward greater reliance on market supply and demand, further offering farmers big one-time payments in exchange for their promise to accept a phasing out of subsidies.

Farmers took the big one-time payments — but then instead of accepting reduced subsidies of “only” $47 billion from 1996 to 2002, they promptly started lobbying for large “supplemental” farm bills which ended up BOOSTING their subsidies to $121 billion over that period.

In 2008, lawmakers tried again for “reform,” though they set their sights considerably lower.

The sweeping, $290 billion 2008 farm bill (yes, they keep getting bigger) was a doozy, adding a new sugar-to-ethanol program under which the government buys “excess” imported sugar that might otherwise put downward pressure on inflated domestic sugar prices. The program defends domestic sugar growers’ 85 percent of the U.S. sugar market, and it allows the government to sell excess sugar, at a loss if need be, to ethanol producers, thus disguising the real cost of the stuff.

Meantime, on the “reform” front, framers of the 2008 “reform bill” promised it would cut government payments to wealthy farmers. It didn’t.

Data being made public Wednesday shows that the wealthiest farmers in the country are still receiving the bulk of government cash, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Not only that, “a series of exemptions written into the bill has made it more difficult for the public to find out who is receiving what,” the Post reports.

“They are well dug in,” says Ken Cook, head of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington advocacy group. “They have a strong interest in defending the status quo.”

Cook’s organization publishes a database every several years based on a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to the Agriculture Department, which collects data on subsidies but doesn’t organize it for the public to search. The group’s most recent database, released Wednesday, shows just 10 percent of farmers received 62 percent of federal farm payments in 2009, roughly the same amount as in 2007 and 2008, before the latest “reforms” were enacted.

“One reason for this may be that some farmers have found ways around the new rules,” the Post reports. “Those who exceed the income limits, established with the aim of eliminating subsidies for millionaires, could speed up purchases of equipment or otherwise alter their accounting to adjust their income. They may also add family members to their farm corporations to qualify for higher payments.”

Randolph Rogers, a Hartsville, S.C., farmer who saw his subsidy payments drop after the 2008 farm bill eliminated a loophole that allowed him to collect more money, said he recouped some of the money by adding his children and his wife to his farm corporation, called Rogers Bros.

“The rules have changed and we have to change with them,” said Rogers, who grows cotton, soybeans, peanuts, corn and wheat. “We don’t have a lot of choice.”

According to the Environmental Working Group’s database, Rogers Bros. received $807,299 in federal subsidies last year. But Rogers says those who want to change the way payments are made don’t understand the high cost of farming.

“Everybody just acts like we just put our money in our pockets,” he said. “But it takes that money to operate.”

Farmers — providing they pay some attention to the best match between what their land will grow and the commodities for which consumers will pay the best prices — should indeed be able to retain those profits the free market will allow.

But how is it the government’s job to decide how much profit — after telling farmers how much of what to grow?

Here’s a novel proposal to accomplish this sensible goal: Instead of requiring taxpayers to subsidize crops they may never want or use, and additionally requiring all Americans to pay far more than market rates for some commodities, including cotton and sugar, get government out of the business of manipulating agricultural prices, entirely.

End protective tariffs, thus vastly benefiting farmers in Third World countries who would love to ship us cheaper cotton, peanuts and sugar.

End agricultural subsidies entirely, closing the Department of Agriculture, for the congressional funding of which no mandate can be located in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution, which itemizes all the powers of Congress.

(Heck, agricultural subsidies don’t even “promote the general welfare.” They promote the “specific welfare” of some large farmers, while denigrating the welfare of smaller farmers and those who’d prefer to buy cheaper cotton, sugar and peanut butter. This is the opposite of “promoting the general welfare.”)

Let the prices received by farmers be dependent on what consumers — with more money in their pockets thanks to this reduction in taxes and government expenditures, as well as vastly reduced prices for anything containing cotton, sugar or peanuts — are actually willing to pay.

In this congressional primary season, the air is full of cries to “reduce the size and cost of government.” If candidates who claim that goal refuse to close the Department of Agriculture, ask them why.

Farm programs “result in overproduction, overuse of marginal farmland, and land price inflation, which results from subsidies being capitalized into land values,” reports the Cato Institute, at “Subsidy programs create less efficient planting, induce excess borrowing by farmers, cause insufficient attention to cost control, and … negative environmental effects.”

Kill them.

One Comment to “How many times must we pay for the same vegetables?”

  1. Jane Says:

    We raise cattle (cow/calf) and hay. When we buy new ground we are forced to maintain the current gov’t contracts until they expire, regardless of whether or not we want them. If we don’t continue them the previos owners would then be required to reimburse the gov’t ALL gov’t payments EVER received on the ground; that’s right EVER. No one will sell ground without the new owners being willing to continue those contracts. Additionally no one will rent ground unless you maintain the contracts because they can make more on the subsidy than they can on the crop. We endeavor to farm all our own ground and allow all contracts to expire. We would prefer to let them expire at the time of purchase but that, sadly, is not an option.