Back in the 1930s, when the economy was a wreck, the survival of capitalism was in doubt and Oklahoma was blowing away, you could understand the impulse for Washington to intervene on behalf of farmers. But the days when agriculture meant a lifetime of toil for a meager living are just a memory. Today, farmers monitor soil conditions by computer, drive air-conditioned tractors and have a higher average income than non-farmers.
Yet many of them continue to enjoy treatment other industries can only dream about. Imagine the government rigging the market to assure high prices to people selling concrete or cameras. Dairy farmers and sugar growers get exactly that, courtesy of the Department of Agriculture. Farmers who plant a host of other crops receive compensation any time their prices fall below a fixed minimum.
An alternative farm bill was introduced yesterday:
The View from New England:
An odd pair of senators joined Tuesday in an assault on farm programs that will put their colleagues - none more than California's Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer - in a tough spot.
Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., proposed a rebel farm bill called the Fresh Act that would replace billions of dollars in payments to farmers of a handful of crops with an insurance program that would be available free to all farmers - including the 91 percent of California farmers who receive no federal crop subsidies.
They estimate that California would by far be the biggest beneficiary of the changes, gaining an additional $7 billion in federal aid over five years, mainly for environmental, research, and pest and nutrition programs.
But it would come at the expense of the state's heavily subsidized cotton and rice farmers and the cluster of seven states in the Midwest and South that get most of the $7.5 billion that will be spent this year on subsidies for corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soybeans.
The plan is expected to save so much money that it could finance a veritable liberal dream list.
Two-thirds of the nation's farmers don't receive a single dime in commodity payments.
Over the course of the last farm bill, fully half of those payments went to just seven states: Iowa, Texas, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas and Indiana.
Just one in three farmers who apply for conservation money receives any funding at all.
The list goes on and on and on.
The farm bill, as it is currently constructed, rewards farmers who are already making money. Those who are growing wheat or raising cattle with great success can still receive money from the federal government. This probably makes good sense to those farmers who are able to rake in taxpayer cash even as they prosper in tilling the soil. And their senators and representatives apparently see this as a winning proposition, also. But for anyone who takes a realistic look at our nation's farm bill, the programs simply don't add up.
New England farmers and people in cities and towns across the land would benefit most if the new bill increased money for conservation. But the bill the Senate will be debating would add just $4 billion for conservation.