Farm bill debate demands attention


Last week, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee wrapped up its series of farm policy hearings. The committee challenged the 15 groups that appeared before it to come armed with detailed policy proposals, no pleas for sympathy nor feel-good fluff.

Where the committee goes from here as it shapes the next farm bill is anyone’s guess.

But there’s plenty of rhetoric on all sides, and we should probably heed at least some of it.

* “Forget traditional farm policy. It’s over with,” warns former North Dakota Gov. Allen Olson at a regional conference last year. “I can’t imagine in contemporary American that that’s going to continue.”

* “Unless there are efforts to balance production with demand… American farmers face declining prices and incomes,” said Robert G.F. Spitze, retired University of Illinois ag economist. “This is hardly unique in the U.S. economy. Almost all industries face the same problem when they produce at capacity.”

* “We’re in denial that anything long-term is to blame for the devastatingly low prices and low market incomes in crop agriculture,” said University of Tennessee economist Daryll Ray. “We’re more willing to blame agriculture’s problems on the Asian Crisis, exchange rates, energy prices or anything else that comes along.”

Here’s what troubles me: Today, total federal payments account for 40 percent to 45 percent of the net farm income nationally.

That’s an average; in individual states, some producers are farming the government for more than 50 percent of their net farm income.

This is a far cry from the doctrine of the 1996 Freedom to Farm bill: increasing reliance on the market and a shrinking of the government’s role in agriculture.

Without this record government support, net cash income in 2000 would have declined about 11.4 percent from 1998 and 17.7 percent from 1996, according to the Commission on 21st Century Production Agriculture.

But when the Joe Taxpayer considers the $70 billion outlay for direct farm payments since fiscal year 1998, he asks “why?”

And, as Iowa State ag economist Bruce Babcock replies, “the payments have flowed to agriculture without any serious discussion of what the payments are supposed to accomplish, other than the idea that we should not lose any farmers.”

“Clearly,” Babcock adds, “this cannot guide farm policy without a complete rejection of our capitalistic society.”

In an interview with the New York Times, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said “…these farm payments have become truly rural support payments.”

The more troublesome question is whether the farm community now sees these payments as entitlements. Are we developing a farm culture of dependency instead of one of innovation and self-reliance, hallmarks of the farming spirit?

There are some fundamental, long-term problems with U.S. farm policy. For example, why do we continue to raise more corn, soybeans and cotton than we can sell at a profit?

The next farm bill had better address those problems. We can’t move forward until we do.

(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or at


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