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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org