Thursday, November 15, 2007

Specious Arguing on Farm Bill Effects

Grist has this post by Britt Lundgren, on the faults of the farm bill and what changes should be made. Without addressing all of the points, I'd like to focus on the flaws in this excerpt, flaws which are recurrent in the green/locavore critique of farm policy:
Much of the debate over Farm Bill reform centers on spending priorities. According to the Environmental Working Group's Farm Subsidy Database, 10 percent of the beneficiaries of commodity subsidies received 66 percent of all the money spent on subsidies between 2003 and 2005. Because 6 out of 10 farmers don't get any subsidies at all (they grow vegetables, fruits, nuts or other crops that aren't eligible for subsidies), this means that during this period, just a tiny fraction of the farmers in the US collected over $22 billion in payments. Despite all of the money we pour into farm subsidies, most small and medium-sized farmers are still struggling to make ends meet.

[give Lundgren credit for not throwing in an attack on corporate agriculture, which people often include here--contrasting small farmers with corporate farms.]
Okay, farmers who plant and harvest a bigger acreage of field crops get the bigger share of the dollars. But the argument is unclear--should we subsidize the small and medium-sized farmers of all crops and not the large? Who is a farmer? Most farmers get off-the-farm income. Most small farmers operate at a loss. Back in Kentucky in the 1980's around Lexington, IBM was building up its printer operation, later sold off as Lexmark. We had tobacco farms subdivided into 5 acre lots to accommodate the houses the IBM executives were putting up. They still had farmland, they owned farmland, but were they farmers? (They might well be included as farmers in some reports.)

Presumably we shouldn't be interested in subsidizing the 16% of farmers who are "lifestyle" farmers (those Lexmark executives, or the Barbara Kinsolvings of the world), nor the 16% who are "retirement" farmers. Clearly M. Lundgren doesn't want to subsidize the 2.2% of nonfamily farms (might be run by corporations, universities or monasteries, or whatever) or the 8.2 percent of large and very large family farms. That leaves about 10% limited resource and 25% small family farms as the target group.

Unfortunately for Lundgren, the lifestyle and retirement farmers are exactly the people who disproportionately receive conservation payments. The big farmers need their $4,000 an acre land to grow crops, not conservation uses. And the limited resource and small family farms also need their land for farming.

And the corporate farmers? They're disproportionately found growing stuff that's not subsidized: fruits and vegetables, "other livestock". Any implication that we should shift the focus of farm programs from big field crop farmers to growers of fruits and vegetables would have us subsidize corporate agriculture. (Of course, I recognize Lundgren and those who share these opinions don't want that. The problem is they, we all, argue based on assumptions and pretty ideas in our heads, not on the facts.

Source of all this info -- ERS publication. Recommended

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