Will we finally pass a sensible Farm Bill?

Examining the long-delayed bill and finding lots to lambaste.

 

The recurring Farm Bill that Congress has been wrangling over lately has long been viewed as a mess by most disinterested observers. The farm assistance program was begun during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression as an emergency measure to save devastated family farmers who then supplied most of the nation’s food; it was never meant to be permanent.

But permanent it has become with a few hogzillas addicted to fattening at the trough. The Colorado Public Interest Research Group reports that since 1995, 75 percent of farm subsidies have gone to the top 3.8 percent of producers — agricultural giants like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Monsanto, who are, of course, in dire need of funds to patch all those creaky shacks on the great plains and replace all those mule teams killed by tornados and dust storms. Sixty-two percent of farmers got diddly-squat.

I think the big boys are up on their boots now, and should be able to fend for themselves. They’re really in no danger of having to load up the hillbilly wagon and trudge westward to California. And do we really need to hand them taxpayer money to produce high fructose corn syrup, the prime ingredient in junk food and soft drinks that are mostly responsible for an epidemic of obesity and diabetes in this country? We are the fattest nation on earth but are gaining company: Wherever the American diet is introduced, waistlines balloon and diabetes soars.

The federal government gives lip service to a healthier diet, but farm subsidies reflect other priorities — mainly keeping the corporate giants and other well-heeled addicts happy. Jon Bon Jovi, Jimmy Carter, Ted Turner, Mark Rockefeller and 1,500 residents of New York City have received subsidies, including 374 on New York’s ritzy Upper East Side. Some of these sodbusters have invested in farmland and simply get paid to never plant a thing. They wouldn’t know a plow from a parking meter.

The pay-not-to-plant subsidies were intended to keep prices stable during crises, so essential farmers wouldn’t go under. They now serve to inflate prices so perfectly healthy corporations can net record profits, unperturbed by market forces. Subsidies for crop insurance  -- totaling $14 billion last year -- are also riddled with fraud, going to large corporations that can well afford their own insurance. The recipients are classified. Critics say these subsidies encourage risky planting just to harvest the insurance payoff. In North Carolina, a network of insurance agents, claims adjusters and farmers bilked the government out of $100 million over a decade.

The need for reform is widely recognized, but the farming industry seems as robustly defensive to change as Wall Street, where the derivative virus still runs amok. The big ag companies spent $52 million for lobbying during the 2012 election cycle, and the average Congressional representative cringes in retreat.

In the original House bill, an amendment would have capped farm and subsidy size; any company making over $250,000 in profits would not have been eligible for assistance. The amendment failed by a few votes as Republicans fought to purge food stamps from the bill. That program, too, has been victimized by fraudsters, but it should be cleaned up, not abolished. Do we really want desperately hungry people on the prowl, resorting to begging?

Like so many other lip-servicers in Washington, the supposed fiscal conservatives operate in a perverse way. They shovel taxpayer money to rich people who own farmland, which artificially inflates the costs of food for people barely making it; then they want to cut off assistance to poor people who need help buying food.

There are ideal solutions to this mess, but, of course, they have as much chance of passing as asparagus does of sprouting in the Sahara. Once again, the Congress might just roll over the existing bill with all its flaws rather than try for reforms. Some changes are simple: Food stamps could be pruned back to a more detailed purchase list, and anyone receiving a farm subsidy could be required to show up in person to get it -- wearing a John Deere cap, sweaty overalls and boots reeking of manure. To weed out talented impersonators, the recipient of our tax dollars must also recite Country & Western’s top 10 hits over the last year.

This makes sense — probably too much sense for Washington. I fear our legacy is going to be: We lost Detroit, but saved the Twinkie.

Travis Kelly is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a web/graphic designer, writer and cartoonist in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: