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What IS the role of the farm bill?

By Dave Carter

What is the role of the federal Farm Bill in guiding the structure of American agriculture anyway?

Opponents of federal farm programs have argued for decades that Uncle Sam had no legitimate role in meddling in the farm marketplace. Eliminate farm programs, they claimed, and let the efficient farmers survive.

In the 1963 book, Farms and Farmers in an Urban Age, author Edward Higbee wrote, “The only real solution of agriculture’s major social problems is more city jobs for people who would gladly give up farm pursuits if there were decent alternatives.”

Under Presidents Nixon and Ford, Agriculture Secretary Earl L. Butz argued passionately that reducing federal farm supports would unleash the big, efficient farms to prosper in the world marketplace. The architects of the 1996 Freedom to Fail . . er, excuse me . . Freedom to Farm Act boasted that declining support levels would create a transitional program in which the efficient farms could survive in the global marketplace while everyone else went into town and got a job.

Even as recently as February of this year, a parade of farm economists assembled at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Outlook Forum, tossed out the term “big, efficient” farms as if the words “big” and “efficient” were synonymous.

It’s ironic, then, that the House Agriculture Committee seems intent on assuring that the bulk of farm program benefits go to the nation’s largest farms. Ironic, but not surprising.

The supposed opponents of federal farm programs have worked for years to channel the greater part of direct commodity supports to the largest operations. Now, those opponents of federal intervention are making the case for a “Too Big to Fail” approach to federal farm policy.

In the opening salvo of the farm bill debate this year, the president of one large agricultural organization argued that the next farm bill should be tailored to funnel the bulk of federal support to the nation’s 15,000 largest growers. According to this line of logic, those growers now produce the majority of food and fiber. Protecting the survival of the largest producers is in the national interest, the farm organization president reasoned.

Wait a second. Aren’t these the same growers that were supposed to emerge as the survivors in a competitive marketplace? Since when did our federal farm bill become a policy of “Too Big to Fail?”

Yet, the House Agriculture Committee seems intent to resist adopting any provisions that would target provisions to a broader spectrum of farms.

Don’t get me wrong; large producers should have access to certain farm program benefits. But, the federal government should not play a role in subsidizing growth, or in financing the survival of large operations at the expense of smaller farms and ranches.

The comprehensive farm bill proposal developed by the National Farmers Union this year would effectively target benefits to support the first units of production from each farming operation. The policy is intended to provide profitable returns from the commodities grown on an average size farm. But the targeting provisions in the bill will stop the flow of federal dollars to support production beyond a specific level. After that, growers are on their own.

It’s a common-sense approach intended to provide a safety net for a nationwide structure of dispersed, diversified agricultural operations. The Senate Agriculture Committee appears receptive to this approach. The House Agriculture Committee has already developed a working farm bill draft that will virtually guarantee the consolidation of farming into a handful of large, industrial operations.

Representatives and Senators are coming home this month to spend some time meeting with their constituents. Be sure to take the opportunity to ask them which approach they favor.