In 1996, the United States began a new policy initiative designed to limit — seemingly — the federal government’s involvement in agriculture.
That goal, plus then President Bill Clinton’s “reinventing government” initiative, has resulted in 23,000 fewer USDA employees, and the closing of 1,000 USDA offices across the land.
On the surface, all of this sounds like a libertarian dream come true. But is it? Since 1996, the federal government has shelled out a record-shattering $71 billion in direct payments to farmers. Lately, spending bills coming out of Congress have routinely been stuffed with “emergency” financial aid to farmers — last year’s totaled an unprecedented $8.8 billion.
Economists estimate that half of all payments to farmers comes from U.S. taxpayers! What happened to less government involvement in farming?
Farm prices dropped dramatically several years ago and have only recently begun slowly rising again. In fact, many believe that out-of-pocket farm production costs exceed the revenue generated by farming for many small farmers. Obviously, this situation cannot go on forever.
What should be done? Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said, “The farm program hasn’t really solved the problem of rural population loss or land conservation protection. We’re clearly not doing that with the farm programs we’ve got now.”
Billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars poured on the problem of sustaining the small farmer and it’s not working? Truth hurts sometimes.
A private research study conducted by Virginia-based Sparks Company contends that our farm policy ignores the important reality that 72% of U.S. food production comes from a small core of 157,000 commercial farmers who are so efficient that they can make money even when commodity prices are depressed. While the government programs tend to be gravy for these farmers, the study argues, they provide less help than needed for the 189,000 smaller, less efficient operations whose owners get more than half their income from non-farm jobs.
Any discussion of farm policy is a sensitive matter, especially in Mississippi.
The small family farm occupies a hallowed place in our culture. We seem to believe that it is the foundation for all that is good and pure in our country. We believe this so strongly that we invest billions of dollars of taxpayer money trying to keep the small family farm afloat. To hint that it should be otherwise is blasphemy, particularly here in the Deep South and across the Midwest.
While I dodge the stones this suggestion will no doubt cause to be tossed my way, let me suggest that perhaps it’s time to look at the reality of the situation. Can, and should, America indefinitely prop-up an industry that is not profitable enough to sustain itself in the marketplace? Neighborhood meat markets, buggy whip manufacturers and small family dairy farms have all passed away without so much as a cultural whimper. How long will small family farms be accorded preferential treatment in the face of economic reality?
Our farm policy is not saving the family farm and retaining people in rural areas. The recent census clearly shows that people are migrating to the population centers. Meanwhile, federal funding encourages farmers to keep overproducing, adding to the glut of unsold commodities, keeping prices depressed and disrupting global trade. Just like with the war on drugs, we are pouring billions and billions of taxpayer dollars on a problem that is not getting any better.
Isn’t it worth considering whether the time has come to treat agriculture like all other commercial endeavors and let it sink or swim? Admittedly, this is a harsh suggestion, however, isn’t that ultimately where we will end up?
I was raised on one of those inefficient, small family farms in Hinds County. One of those farms where less than half of our income came from farming. In fact, a fair amount of my father’s non-farm income went to support the farming operation.
And yes, I have cherished memories of the farm and sometimes wish I were living there. However, my children were raised in town and have no such attachment to the soil.
Will future generations be willing to pay tax dollars to support a way of life they have never experienced? No, they will not.
It would be better to face the inevitable now and phase-out of the farm subsidy business gradually rather than to wait until some future generation pulls the plug suddenly. If the government is intent of subsidizing something, I still fondly remember 35