Four years ago, the debate about a new farm bill seemed to get a lot more coverage. It was in the news all the time. This year, it’s almost an afterthought in the press. If the New York Times and their urban brethren have some space left over after covering the bizarre Republican Cirque du Soleil scramble for the nomination, they’ll squeeze in a word or two about one of the most important issues floating around the dysfunctional family life that’s Washington, DC.
NYT, that often pompous journal of urban ranching (Got a tomato plant sprouting out of a milk carton in your uptown apartment kitchen window? You’re an urban rancher.) just published some suggestions from people who hope they have a stake in the issue. Their short commentaries, all based on their personal prejudices, seek to put some form to the massive and formless thing that poses as an intelligent farm bill discussion inside the Beltway these days.
Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and editor of the blog Overlawyered, says “Untangle This Messy, Unfocused Bill.” What drives Olson’s Cato’d point-of-view? Wikipedia describes the Institute as “a libertarian think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C. founded in 1977 by Edward H. Crane, who remains president and CEO, and Charles Koch, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the conglomerate Koch Industries, Inc., the second largest privately held company by revenue in the United States.”
“The Institute's stated mission is "to increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace. The Institute will use the most effective means to originate, advocate, promote, and disseminate applicable policy proposals that create free, open, and civil societies in the United States and throughout the world.”
Olson wagged his finger at one of the fed’s more absurd shortcomings. “Even as the federal government ships millions to the New York City health department to lecture us on the dangers of salty snacks and other waistline temptations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this month awarded $50,000 to a Long Island company to market its product: potato chips” he wrote.
It’s the same split personality that causes the government to grossly curtail the marketing of tobacco products for valid health reasons while supporting tobacco farmers with annual checks.
Surprisingly for a libertarian-driven organization in this too polarized political climate, Olson gave Obama “credit for reaching out in his new proposals to a combination of urban liberals and budget-cutting conservatives to back a few long-overdue cuts, including modest trims to the crop insurance program.”
Question: I know conservatives can correctly be labeled ‘budget cutting’ but are all liberals “‘urban?” Are there no suburban or rural liberals?
Olson asked that Obama take another step or two, claiming the “harrowing federal deficits and distress through much of the nonfarm economy, should offer the ideal chance to get the American farm back to the independence that was once its glory.”
And just how should that “independence” be achieved? He didn’t say. Best guess would be to greatly reduce or eliminate all farm subsidies. They’re paid for by your taxes, after all, and a reduction in spending, no matter how draconian, is the common theme that knits together conservatives and libertarians.
As for that independence Olson mentions, imagine Bruce Springsteen doing “Glory Days” over a video of rural America in the 1930’s, not a glorious sight. A more appropriate tune might be Martina McBride, an honorable daughter of hard-working Kansans, doing “Independence Day.’
Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, called for “feeding the world’s hungry, for less.” She noted that we supply half of all food aid worldwide and leaves one important question unasked: How long can we afford to continue to be the world’s breadbasket? Will the pantry door always be open to the exploding world population, many of whom live in a constant state of “food insecurity?”
She called for an easing of farm bill requirements for providing foreign food aid — and in the process, feed more people, faster, at a lower cost. The steps she suggested, though – ending the requirement that food aid be purchased and processed stateside and that 75 percent of it shipped on U.S. vessels – seems to be a dead-in-the-water suggestion when the only common theme in Washington is “more jobs.” Outsourcing? Not a chance.
Her complaint is our “one-size-fits-all model” of food aid wastes more than half of each food aid dollar. Loading the dice, she claims it subsidizes giant agribusinesses and shipping conglomerates. I’m not sure if small family farms and row boats are the answer, though.
Tyler Cowen, author of the forthcoming "An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies," a professor of economics at George Mason University and blogger at Marginal Revolution, took the baby and the bath water approach when he suggested ending subsidies and treating animals better.
For an academic, Cowen is shockingly out of touch, making statements that are only passingly related to the facts. Whenever you see someone connecting to the word “Foodies” you can place a sure bet that they don’t live in the real world. An economist who follows his suggestions surely won’t have much of a lunch in a few years. “First,” he said, “we should abolish all federal farm subsidies, including all subsidies to crop insurance. They are a multi-billion-dollar burden, and they are opposed with virtual unanimity by policy wonks from both the left and the right.”
Let me invite bona fide policy wonks to weigh in on his claim. “Virtual unanimity” these days is like “virtual reality.” It doesn’t exist outside of a computer screen and suggesting the left and the right can agree on anything is a fervent wish shared only by those cloistered souls looping Jupiter.
But he really steps off planet Earth when he calls for better treatment for farm animals. “Many of these animals are as intelligentand as sociable as our family pets, yet we would never dream of subjecting our pets to comparable conditions”.
Really? A warm barn, scientifically balanced feed and health care designed for maximum growth and health, and a constant source of fresh water? The only difference between a cat and a cow is the cat sleeps in the house; the cow refuses to be housebroken so it stays outside. Cowen has watched too many of those PETA/HSUS exposes and has grossly and incorrectly assumed those videos are normal.
I’m inviting him to visit with America’s real ranchers and farmers. Call up Bill Donald, the outgoing NCBA president and a Montana cattle rancher. Ring up Pat Venable, an Oregon cattle women. For a real earful, give Trent Loos or Jude Capper a call.
Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group, has a slightly more reasonable idea; eliminate the $5 billion in direct payments the government sends to farm businesses every year regardless of need.
He calls for minimum conservation standards and crop insurance that helps farmers survive a crippling crop failure, not serve as an income guarantee.
Cox wants better access to local, healthy food, especially fruits and vegetables. Why not beef, pork and poultry, too? Government farm subsidies of any kind shouldn’t unfairly favor one crop over another.
Drifting far to the left, David Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now! Says we need an organic farm bill. He wants the new bill to promote ‘best agricultural practices for sustainable and organic production methods.’
Food Democracy Now’s web site says, “Our food system is fundamentally broken. A few companies dominate the market, prioritizing profits over people and our planet. Government policies put the interests of corporate agribusiness over the livelihoods of farm families. Farm workers toil in unsafe conditions for minimal wages. School children lack access to healthy foods--as do millions of Americans living in poverty. From rising childhood and adult obesity to issues of food safety, air and water pollution, worker's rights and global warming, our current food system is leading our nation to an unsustainable future.”
Murphy calls for a radical cure, asking that the new bill implement a $25 billion plan to transition to organic food and farming production, to make sure that 75% of U.S. farms are U.S.D.A. organic certified by 2025.
He also wants to feed organic food to all children enrolled in public school lunch programs by the year 2020 and pass a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Bill to place a million new farmers on the land by 2020.
I suppose the first step is to develop a meaningful definition of the term “organic” and the second step is for his group to realize that most “big farms” are actually family farms and their highly efficient production methods are an absolute necessity to feeding Americans as well as the world’s hungry. I have yet to see proof that small, organic farms are capable of the kind of output required to keep hunger at bay.
Gretchen Hamel, executive director of Public Notice, also wants to get back to the basics which she defines as basic fiscal responsibility. Public Notice describes itself as an independent non-profit dedicated to providing facts and insight on the economy and how government policy affects Americans’ financial well-being. How they are funded is not readily available; their web site press releases are concentrated on budget cutting measures. On July 4, Hamel wrote an opinion piece entitled “Declare our Independence from Mounting Public Debt.”
Hamel takes an unwarranted scatter gun approach by condemning large and small businesses, farmers and ranchers, and others who she says ‘game the system for financial gain at the expense of taxpayers.’
Her suggestion that the system encourages greed and deceit by the players is tantamount to using a 3,800 psi pressure washer to clean the breakfast dishes. No doubt there are those that look for every advantage in government subsidies and the tax system, General Electric famously got a tax refund while banking billions in profits last year. To suggest those acts are deceitful when the participants are following the letter of the law is a bit harsh.
Her claim that the bill encourages many in agribusiness to play a game, instead of focusing on creating value is simply not true. Creating value is what the vast majority of farmers and ranchers do. With their often thin margins, creating as much value as possible is critical to their survival. Painting any industry as inherently lazy and evil because of a few bad actors is intellectual sloth.
Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, and the one respondent with some real skin in this game, asks for an overhaul of the commodity program and an end to direct payments. A market-driven inventory system, he believes, would have saved the federal government almost half of the money spent on farm programs between 1998 and 2010.
“What farmers need is a strong safety net that will protect family farmers in times when market prices are low or crop yield is poor,” he wrote.
Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.