Do Agriculture Subsidies Help Save Family Farms?
You Can Guess At The Answer
By Pejman Yousefzadeh Posted in Economy | Featured Stories — Comments (7) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
And now, for the second question: Why do we continue to maintain them? (Read on.)
The cornerstone of the multibillion-dollar system of federal farm subsidies is an iconic image of the struggling family farmer: small, powerless against Mother Nature, tied to the land by blood.
Without generous government help, farm-state politicians say, thousands of these hardworking families would fail, threatening the nation's abundant food supply.
"In today's fast-paced, interconnected world, there are few industries where sons and daughters can work side-by-side with moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas," Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said last year. "But we still find that today in agriculture. . . . It is a celebration of what too many in our country have forgotten, an endangered way of life that we must work each and every day to preserve."
This imagery secures billions annually in what one grower called "empathy payments" for farmers. But it is misleading.
Today, most of the nation's food is produced by modern family farms that are large operations using state-of-the-art computers, marketing consultants and technologies that cut labor, time and costs. The owners are frequently college graduates who are as comfortable with a spreadsheet as with a tractor. They cover more acres and produce more crops with fewer workers than ever before.
The very policies touted by Congress as a way to save small family farms are instead helping to accelerate their demise, economists, analysts and farmers say. That's because owners of large farms receive the largest share of government subsidies. They often use the money to acquire more land, pushing aside small and medium-size farms as well as young farmers starting out.
"Historically, when you think of family farms, you think of Mom and Dad and three generations working a small or mid-sized farm. It gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling," said Alex White, a professor of agricultural economics at Virginia Tech. "In the real world, it might be a mid-sized farm. But it also might be a huge farm. It might be a corporation."
Large family farms, defined as those with revenue of more than $250,000, account for nearly 60 percent of all agricultural production but just 7 percent of all farms. They receive more than 54 percent of government subsidies. And their share of federal payments is growing -- more than doubling over the past decade for the biggest farms.
This really should be the kind of thing that we can bring to an end. Liberals dislike corporate subsidies because of a deep and abiding suspicion of Big Business. Small-government conservatives and libertarians dislike corporate subsidies because they symbolize government expansionism. As large farms and corporate farming structures are getting the bulk of subsidies, the interests of the aforementioned political groups should converge to bring these payouts to an end.
Whether they will or not is another question. A lot of work has to be done in the near term to create the necessary nation-wide political coalition determined to rein in subsidies and other manifestations of large government.