YAMHILL, Ore.One measure of the inanity of our national farm policy is that you, as a taxpayer, are paying me not to grow crops here in Oregon.
Democratic House leaders have rammed through another grotesque farm bill on the assumption that the only people who will pay attention will be the beneficiaries. Let’s hope that they’re wrong, because this is a classic example of weak-kneed politicians caving in to special interests.
I grew up on a sheep and cherry farm here in Yamhill, Ore., and still have some timberland outside of town. Every year I get paid $588 not to farm it, under the Conservation Reserve Program.
That’s right: taxpayers are subsidizing a New York columnist not to plant crops in a forest in Oregon.
But at least I’m alive. The Government Accountability Office last month found that the government had handed out $1.1 billion over seven years to dead farmers. In one case, payments were made continually to a farmer who had died in 1973.
When I planted new Douglas fir seedlings on my land, care for the young trees was also subsidized. So America provides health care for tree seedlings but not for millions of children.
Maybe uninsured American children who can’t get adequate health care could masquerade as cotton plants or cornstalks. Then the farm bill would shower them with money and care.
What’s especially dispiriting is how quickly the House Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi have tumbled from idealism to cynicism. The Democrats had promised reform — but then the House leaders worried that scrapping welfare for farmers might hurt the re-election prospects of some newly elected Democrats. So they killed the reform proposals (which are backed by many rank-and-file Democrats).
But as a former farm kid myself, let me say what a lot of farmers and ranchers are too polite to say: Farm subsidies are a cancer on rural America itself. The subsidies have raised land costs, driving out small farmers and undermining the family farm by encouraging consolidation.
The benefits overwhelmingly go to producers of just five crops — wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans and rice — with livestock producers mostly left out. The majority of payments go to commercial farmers who earn more than $200,000 annually, while 95 percent of farmers get little or no benefit from the farm bill. That’s why my friends from my F.F.A. days speak contemptuously about those who make a living “farming the government.”
Look, I fervently believe in trying to preserve the family farm and the vitality of rural towns. One of my high school buddies, Bob Bansen, runs a dairy farm outside Yamhill, and years ago one of his cows had trouble calving. So he called in the local vet in the middle of the night, but the vet’s Caesarean operation didn’t go well and the cow died.
When the vet finally retired, he sent the Bansens a check for the cost of the cow, saying he had always felt guilty about losing that cow. The Bansens refused to accept the check. Foiled, the vet salved his conscience by sending the sum to charity.
That’s the kind of neighborliness that I love about Yamhill and farm towns like it. Unfortunately, farm subsidies don’t protect that social fabric but tear it apart, by encouraging consolidation into the hands of big operators who rake in millions in subsidies.
In contrast, one way to assist family farms would be to underwrite rural broadband, just as rural electrification transformed farms in the last century. Then rural businesses might stand a chance.
The average American family pays $320 a year in farm subsidies, through higher taxes and food prices, according to a recent study by the Heritage Foundation. And those subsidies, particularly for cotton, exacerbate poverty in Africa by depressing prices of crops raised by small African farmers.
There is a familiar trajectory when a political party takes power. At first, it brims with ideals. Then it makes compromises to stay in power. Finally, it becomes devoted simply to staying in office. Can Ms. Pelosi really have compressed this downward spiral into just six months?
President Bush had sought to place a ceiling on payments to any farmer of $200,000 per year, but the Democratic leaders have set it at $1 million ($2 million for a couple). Any time the Democrats find themselves fighting on behalf of fat cats, against a Republican White House that says enough is enough, it’s time for the donkey to kick itself in the head.