It’s farm bill time in Congress and I have to tell you I don’t like it. I don’t like it for all the usual reasons — farm supports are a relic of the Depression; most foods don’t get and don’t need subvention; subsidies make food prices higher, etc. And for some other reasons such as the attitudes of entitlement and dependency that welfare engenders in everyone, including farmers. That attitude found its poster boy in “Tractor Man,” the famous farmer who, in 2003, shut down traffic in Washington, D.C. for three days by driving his tractor onto the National Mall and threatening to blow it up. Tractor Man wanted more money — but then who doesn’t — and I’m betting that he gets more of yours and mine than we know.
That brings me to the heart of my farm subsidy objections. My own rich relative gets a farm subsidy! This relative, who is a fine fellow in every way, has never so much as planted a seed or watered a plant. Well, maybe he has turned on the lawn sprinkler from time to time. But surrounding his vacation home are fields planted in subsidized crops. As the landlord of these fields, my rich relative collects a cut of the subsidy check. I don’t mind seeing a tax payer get something back, but just lowering his taxes would work better.
Back in 1996 Congress took a stab at doing something about the farm fiasco that took significant steps in the right direction. They called it the Freedom to Farm Act, and the first thing you need to know about it is that it didn’t last. Here is how that happened as explained by John Frydenlund in “The Erosion of Freedom to Farm.”
The legislation had barely gone into effect when the opponents of reform began their efforts to repeal the changes it brought, or at least to lay the groundwork for a return to the status quo.
Although opponents of the reform legislation were disgruntled because it reduced the level of government control over the nation’s agriculture industry, once the bill was passed, most farmers supported the flexibility it provided. Within two years, however, the bill’s benefits were dimmed by worldwide economic problems and weather-related disasters in the United States.
This provided the opening that opponents of reform had been seeking — an economic downturn in the farm economy that they could pin on freedom to farm. A return to subsidy-laden government micromanagement of agriculture quickly followed.
Of course there was declared to be a “farm crisis” — there always is a “farm crisis.” And then comes “emergency relief” until once again, to the tune of almost $280-plus billion, we are headed toward more Washington management of U.S. agriculture through a combination of subsidies, commodity supply and price controls, acreage allotments, production quotas, and restrictions on imports, and export subsidies.
All this leaves me asking myself why do we need a farm bill? Why do we feel the need to save the family farm and feel no need to save the family restaurant or the family gas station or the family dry cleaner? My own unpopular idea is that farms should succeed or fail the way other businesses do — on their own — as is the American standard. But in this Congress, that idea is unpopular indeed.
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