Farm Aid Getting Hit From Left and Right

Published March 1, 2005

Liberal environmental groups and conservative economic organizations are coming together to oppose the nation’s farm subsidy system, which is up for renewal in 2007.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. farmers received $19 billion in crop subsidies and disaster relief in 2003, an amount that is drawing criticism from people on the left and the right of the political spectrum.

Political Rivals Agree

Among the groups working to convince Congress to rein in farm subsidies are the liberal Environmental Working Group and the conservative Club for Growth.

Former Club for Growth President Stephen Moore told the Chicago Tribune for a January 8 article, “Farm subsidies are one of the most expensive forms of corporate welfare in the federal budget. Most Americans believe it goes to the small family farmer, but the truth is that the lion’s share goes to large agribusiness.”

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, told the Tribune, “If you lay off a factory worker in Chicago because you outsource the job, we give them $10,000 and a hug and a certificate for retraining. What we give these guys [farmers] is $150,000 for cotton year after year that keeps them in the game internationally.”

While Moore and EWG decry farm subsidies, those in the farm sector staunchly defend their right to receive payments.

Farm Bureau Defends Program

American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President Bob Stallman, a rice producer from Texas, stood up for farmers at the AFBF annual meeting on January 12 in farm-friendly Charlotte, North Carolina.

Before 5,000 attendees, Stallman said, “We want to maintain the structure and funding of the current farm bill. Agriculture is strategically important to the nation, and it should be treated as such.”

Stallman was referring to the 2002 federal farm legislation that guaranteed annual payments to farmers for up to six years. A six-year farm bill has been the typical length. The previous farm bill was enacted in 1996.

“We’re talking about commitments,” Stallman told Farm Bureau members. “You are carrying out your commitment by providing safe, abundant, and affordable food for this country. In return, Congress committed to providing you a workable and effective farm program for six years. We are meeting our commitment. Our government must meet theirs.”

Stallman told Farm Bureau members it is “never bad to hold a good, reasoned debate about U.S. farm policy.” But, he added, that process should take place at the appropriate time.

“We will be glad to talk about policies for the 2007 farm bill and even start that discussion in 2005,” Stallman said. “But, we have to let the current farm bill run its course.”

Congressman Expects Cuts

Though Congress has been loath to make significant cuts in farm subsidies, Congressman Jerry Moran (R-KS), a guest speaker at the AFBF convention, said the future might get rough for farm payments.

Moran is chairman of the House General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee.

“Unfortunately, many members of Congress do not see farming and ranching as something they are interested in,” Moran said in his speech to AFBF members. “We have an urban Congress that sees agricultural spending as the place where the budget can be cut.”

Such lawmakers have an “image of tremendous spending in agriculture,” he said. But the current farm bill earmarks just 16 percent, over six years, of its funding as payments to farmers.

“Most of the money is for nutrition programs,” Moran said. (See sidebar on the USDA budget for further details.)

Moran, in an AFBF press release, urged farmers to “collaborate on developing a clear explanation of why specific farm programs should be maintained.”

Still, Moran said, cuts must be made in farm spending in the next bill, as well as in other line items of the federal budget. He predicted Congress will “likely cut funding for traditional commodity programs, yet maintain or boost dollars targeted for conservation” in the years ahead.

Disaster Payments Questioned

The Environmental Working Group’s Cook told the Chicago Tribune, “You really have hundreds of counties out there and tens of thousands of farmers who can’t grow a crop, but they can reliably get a disaster payment. We [the Environmental Working Group] think it’s worth standing back and saying, ‘Shouldn’t we have another plan for these regions?'”

According to the USDA’s 2005 budget, $19 billion was appropriated to farmers in 2003, including disaster aid. That figure is estimated to be $15 billion for the 2005 budget year.

The federal government paid farmers $104 billion in crop price support payments from 1995 through 2003, according to the USDA. About 1.1 million farmers received another $11.3 billion in disaster relief–for crop losses caused by floods, droughts, hailstorms, and other natural disasters–on top of that.

Transition Process Recommended

Cook told the Chicago Tribune he would “not recommend a cold turkey approach” to cutting off farm payments and disaster aid. He said he would recommend a “transition process” that allows farmers in marginal areas to put the land into “conservation programs or convert to cattle ranching.

“It’s a natural place to invest in conservation programs that take land out of production,” Cook said.

Former AFBF President Dean Kleckner told the Tribune, “The war against [agricultural] subsidies is out there,” adding, “Congress and the administration are going to be in a really hot spot.”

Kleckner also warned, “American farmers and European farmers better get their head out of the sand and wake up and smell the coffee.” The United States and European nations continue to discuss farm payments and world agricultural production in the World Trade Organization.

Illinois Farm Leader Concerned

Illinois Farm Bureau President Phillip Nelson joined the debate in an article published in the January 2005 DuPage Farmer. DuPage County is a Chicago suburban county that still has a small amount of farmland.

Nelson wrote, “We farmers need to be prepared to work for good, long-term policy and aggressively defend our views with both facts and feelings. We need to remind consumers that only 11 cents of each dollar is spent on food–the lowest percentage in the world.

“Despite what our critics say, I think farmers simply want some measures of economic stability and security for themselves and for their families,” Nelson said. “We need policy tools in order for us to manage our own businesses within one of the most volatile industries in America.”

John W. Skorburg ([email protected]) is a visiting lecturer at the University of Illinois-Chicago and associate editor of Budget & Tax News.