Back in July, while my PC was down (and no, I haven't backed it up yet, :-( ), I got an email from D..Z.. (it was an email, not a comment on the blog, so I'm hiding the full name just in case he's concerned. He made very good points, which I promised to respond to when my PC was up. This is the delayed fulfillment of the promise:
1 DZ points out that the Post articles describe the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act as allowing farmers to grow crops without restrictions. That was the way the Act was sold to farmers and the general public. But buried in the fine print was a restriction (actually carried over from the previous farm bill, if memory serves) that prevented farmers from growing "fruits and vegetables" on land previously used for program crops. In other words, farmers were free to switch among "field" crops, like soybeans, other oilseeds, corn, cotton, rice, etc. But established fruit and vegetable growers were afraid of new competition, so the ban was included.
2 That many of the program recipients are widows. DZ heard a USDA official use 30 percent as the figure. I don't know the stat, but the point is true. From the beginning of the farm programs, the landowner has been eligible for payments if the owner shares in the crop. In other words, if I grow the crops on land I rent from Widow Jones for $100 an acre, cash payment, I get all the program payments. But if I rent from her on crop shares, with her getting one-third of the crop, she gets one-third of the payment. A controversy relates to what happens when the program prevents growing the crop--can Widow Jones get all the payment or can I get my 2/3's, even though I grow no crop? The issue arose in 1933 with cotton and sharecroppers, and continues to the present.
Back to widows: women outlive men, so they inherit land, rent it out, and still get payments because they own the land, which leads to point 3.
3 There is a stipulation in the law (since 1985) that payment recipients have to be "actively engaged" in farming. It's part of the payment limitation provisions. To oversimplify, in part because I no longer remember the rules well enough, contributing land and/or capital to the farming operation can qualify one as "actively engaged". So someone who inherited farm land years after they moved to the city and became rich can still be actively engaged in farming and receive program payments. It seems weird, but perhaps it's because our image of the farmer is the 160-acre man and his wife in "American Gothic".
To be continued (This just covers the first few of DZ's points.)