Government should let small farmers farm on a level field
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Ah, harvest time in Iowa! Nothing signifies the Heartland more than good, honest farmers in the fields. But there exists a dark underside of the farm industry: subsidies, import protectionism and price controls.

Congress is debating the new Farm Bill this week, but it would be far better for America to discontinue these programs that actually hurt most farmers, burden taxpayers, make food more expensive and less healthy, damage the environment and contribute to world poverty.

Farm programs started as “temporary” measures in the 1930s to prevent farm bankruptcies during the Depression, and people still have an idea that small family farms would perish without government handouts. However, farmers now have sophisticated ways to protect themselves from disaster: insurance, price contracts and financial derivatives. Additionally, most farm households now have a non-farm earner in the household, which reduces income fluctuations.

In fact, the average farm household income is about 25% higher than the overall average American household income. Furthermore, 72% of farm subsidies are awarded to the biggest 10% of farm businesses – often absentee corporate “farmers” -- not to small family farms.

This inequality holds true locally too. The Farm Subsidy Database at farm.ewg.org shows that while the average Iowa farm subsidy is about $10,000 a year, one Johnson County farm, Fobian Brothers, received over four hundred thousand dollars in government subsidies in 2005.

And at least ten other favored few in Johnson County (including Joel Grabin, Joan Grabin, Eldon Prybil, Burr Farms, J.B. Schott, Joel Schillerstrom, Minor Farms and James Sladek) each received over a hundred thousand dollars of your tax money that year. It’s a great racket, if you can get in on the action.

But for the rest of us and the rest of farmers, it’s not such a great deal. Farm subsidies are a regressive tax because money is transferred from poorer people to wealthier ones. And subsidies to large producers make it harder for smaller farmers to compete. Like most government handouts, farm subsides have ended up hurting the very people they were meant to help.

And farm subsidies harm the environment, because they encourage overproduction of certain crops. This results in mono-crop lack of biodiversity, overuse of fertilizers that pollute rivers and the Gulf of Mexico, excessive fossil fuel use, and induces farmers to start planting on marginal land. This is precisely what is now happening in the Midwest due to our government’s ill-considered ethanol policy: record corn production, water shortages, skyrocketing land prices and the tilling up of previously unfarmed areas.

Subsidies hurt our health. Corn, soybeans and wheat are subsidized, but healthier crops like fruits and vegetables are not (and should not be). And corn subsidies encourage food manufacturers to use corn syrup to make most of our foods.

Subsidies and import protectionism also help keep the world’s poor in poverty and justifiably lead to worldwide resentment of the US. It is truly shameful that we protect the world’s wealthiest farmers by discriminating against farmers in developing countries. Evidently we would rather keep poor countries dependent on aid handouts than allow them to lift themselves out of poverty through trade.

And import protectionism and price controls hurt our own poor, by making most food cost more. Is it right to require families to pay more for food, to enrich big corporate farms?

Some people believe we need government agricultural meddling so the U.S. doesn’t become dependent on foreign food suppliers. But American farming wouldn’t cease if we didn’t have farm programs. Many crops are not protected or subsidized (fruits, vegetables, nuts and greenhouse products), and those growers have actually increased revenues far more than subsidized growers over the past couple decades (but sadly, these growers are now unwisely trying to convince Congress to subsidize them too). Unfettered competition is actually better for farmers in the long run.

A look at New Zealand demonstrates this: they repealed their farm programs in 1984, which spurred the growth of a more innovative agricultural industry that now competes successfully in global markets.

America too needs to discontinue this discriminatory and environmentally harmful practice. It is just plain wrong. Let’s let small farmers, both here and abroad, farm on a level field.