Thursday, December 21, 2006

The truth about small farmers

The Washington Post takes a look at farm subsidies and reports that government subsidies are actually driving small farmers out of the business. The arguments for farm subsidies are often based on the need to protect the small farmer. Somehow, we still seem to have a Jeffersonian admiration for the small yeoman farmer and to envision our country being fed by millions of such noble family farmers. However, now farming is big business and government subsidies to the supposedly small farmer are part of that transformation by driving up the price of farmland and pricing the family farmer out of the market.
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.
But it wouldn't make such a stirring argument if politicians started talking about how we needed to give more federal subsidies to giant agricultural corporations.

This Washington Post story follows one a week and a half ago by the same journalists in the Post about how politicians from both parties have been rewarding dairy lobbyists to stop one dairy farmer from, heaven forfend!, charging lower prices for his milk. I often bash the press, but these two stories by Gilbert M. Gaul, Sarah Cohen and Dan Morgan are excellent examples of what the media can do - examine some decades-long accepted practice and expose how government is spending taxpayer money and actually harming the people they're claiming to help: consumers and the small, individual farmers.