April 19, 2002 | Commentary on Federal Budget
Until this year.
This year, farmers can't plant - can't even plan what crops to
grow - because Congress hasn't decided on a farm policy for the
year. Until Congress decides which crops to subsidize and at what
levels, banks that serve farmers can't lend the money for seed and
supplies to get the process started. No plan from Congress means no
plan from farmers, which means no loans from banks and, alas, no
planting as critical spring days pass.
A farm policy exists. The 1996 farm law doesn't expire until
October. But members of Congress not only want to revise farm
legislation, they want the new provisions to take effect this year.
However, they left for a two-week Easter recess without deciding on
a new farm policy. The House and Senate each have passed bills, but
a conference committee assigned to reconcile them has yet to
complete its work.
Which brings us to the present bind.
Congress should abandon attempts to revise farm policy this
year, extend the current legislation through the growing season of
2003, then get to work bringing true reform to farm policy.
The 1996 Freedom to Farm legislation aimed to bring real reform.
It sought to wean farmers, particularly large agri-business
companies, from federal farm subsidies and allow farmers to grow
the crops they want rather than what the government tells them to
But each year since 1996, various groups of aggrieved farmers
have convinced Congress they face doom unless the government
bolsters subsidies. As a result, subsidies now dwarf even pre-1996
levels, even though 60 percent of family farmers receive no
subsidies and the top 10 percent of subsidy recipients receive
three-fourths of the money.
The bills in Congress won't make things better - both propose
Americans dole out $17 billion per year in farm subsidies,
perpetuating what has become a huge corporate-welfare program. For
just $4 billion, Congress could provide enough income to bring
every farmer in America into the middle class.
That wouldn't make for good farm policy either, but at least the
money would be spent as the vast majority of Americans expect - to
help struggling family farmers. Not on Fortune 500 companies such
as Chevron and John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance or individuals
such as billionaire banker David Rockefeller, multimillionaire
basketball star Scottie Pippen or 15 members of Congress, nearly
all of whom receive far more than the annualmedian farm subsidy of
The way subsidy programs work now - the more you grow of
selected crops, the more you receive - bestows a huge advantage on
corporate farms, which have larger tracts and thus more favorable
economies of scale. Corporate farms then use the subsidy money to
buy out family farmers, the supposed beneficiaries of farm
programs. Thus, corporate farms already control three-fourths of
rice farming in America, and similar consolidation is expected in
wheat, soybeans, corn and cotton - unless present policies
Both bills propose the largest farm subsidy program in world
history - at a cost of $4,400 per family over the next 10 years.
Both propose that current subsidy programs continue more or less
unchanged. Both reflect not the interests of Americans in general
but the interests of corporate and other wealthy farmers who have
spent nearly $70 million since 1999 on campaign
Farmers, like everyone else, need to stand on their own. If they
can't, and if Americans think it's worth millions of dollars to
preserve family farms, Congress needs to redesign farm policy
toward that end rather than give subsidies, literally, to
For the time being, the best we can hope for is that Congress extend the present policy so farmers can plant, wait until November, when election pressures abate, then get to work truly making things better for farming in America.
Brian M. Riedlis the Grover M. Hermann fellow in federal budgetary affairs at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy institute.
This Op-Ed originally appeared in the Washington Times.