Sun Ra - Column for 9/9

Behind the Barn

America needs to dramatically restructure its farm subsidies. Or, failing that, to get rid of them entirely.

What do you think of when you hear "farm subsidy"? You think of the Great Depression, right? The Dust Bowl? Thin, dirty people in poor clothes whose farm is being repossessed by the evil bankers. Good Americans, who work harder than you do all year and due to sheer bad luck need to be helped through the bad years, so that they can Grow The Food You Eat.

Well, that's all bullshit. There aren't many "family farmers" any more. They have gone the way of your local silversmith. American Corpitalism has eaten them. The few "family farmers" that are left are the ones who have alternate sources of income or have found a fringe area that allows them to charge more for better product, like kosher beef ranchers or organic vegetable growers or snooty winemakers. In reality, a very small number of large farm businesses are responsible for about two-thirds of the nation's food production.

So the money you vaguely thought was going to help people is instead going to help the bottom line of a few corporations. Not that this is new - it's been this way for years. Bush's latest pork barrel obscenity just ups the payments. You know who will get the $170 billion (over the next ten years) from the current (2002) farm bill? Huge agri-business corporations. Payments going from your taxes into the pockets of his rich Republican friends.

As a slight aside, were you aware that the Democratic coasts of this country subsidize the Republican middle to the tune of $70 billion each year? Yeah, the real welfare in this nation is going to corporations, my friend. But that's what you get when 16% of the country's population has 50% of the senators. The (dare I say) Bible-thumping conservatives of the "heartland" are overrepresented, and their wealthy allies are all suckling on the government tit harder than any welfare mother ever did. And still they have the gall to present themselves as fiscal conservatives.

Back to farm subsidies. During the period 1996-2000, the bottom 80% of farm subsidy recipients recieved on average $1,132 a year. Note that only 36% of farmers recieved subsidies to begin with. However, during the same period, a "farmer" known as Chevron recieved $260,223 in farm subsidy money. DuPont got $188,732, International Paper got $375,393, Caterpillar got $171,698... seeing a trend?

But these are just tiny amounts large companies scoop out because they have savvy lawyers, who advise them to plant corn amongst the oil pumps and add a free hundred grand to their bottom line. The real companies being subsidized are the huge agri-business concerns that essentially own the farm states. The largest single subsidy recipient during 1996-2000 was Tyler Farms, who recieved $23,810,102. Yeah, twenty-three million dollars in farm aid. That should keep their kids from starving, eh?

And they are just the top recipient. Missouri Delta Farms - $15 million. DNRC Trust Land Management - $9 million. NAPI - $6.8 million. Mitchener planting - $6.3 million. Egypt planting company, the company that recieved the 99th largest share of subsidy money, got $2.4 million. Altogether, the top 100 subsidy recipients got $357.5 million dollars over the period. That's $71.5 million dollars of government money per year going directly from you to one hundred large companies. In the guise of "helping the American farmer".

Two-thirds of all farm subsidy money goes to the top 10% of all recipients. This ten percent also happens to be the most profitable farms - and the subsidies they recieve are above and beyond the money they get from actually selling their crops.

To quote a liberal aphorism, "if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."

Of course, we're not paying attention. That's why it works. It's precisely the same with The Sugar Tariff. It works because you don't know about it, or don't think that a dollar or two of your tax money (and mine, and everyone else's) is worth fighting about. Oh, I'm as guilty as you are. The particularly galling part, of course, is that we thought we were doing something good.

We were never supposed to know the truth. Until 2001, you couldn't find out who recieved how much. The USDA listed all such information as "confidential", and wouldn't release a page of it. How galling for them when the courts upheld a lawsuit brought by the Washington Post, and forced them to release farm subsidy information for the first time last year. An environmental organization, The Environmental Working Group, then filed under the Freedom of Information Act and obtained the subsidy records, which they have made available in a searchable database on their website. Most of the figures in this article, aside from those cited as being from the Economist, come from the USDA via EWG's web site.

However, although we didn't know about the handouts, we did know that small farms were going the way of the passenger pigeon. In 1935 there were abot 6.5 million farms in the United States. (The total U.S. population was around 130 million.) By 1997 that number was down to 1,911,859, out of a total U.S. population of 275 million. Of those, only 685,029 (36%) recieved subsidies. Subsidies are available for the production of rice, corn, wheat, cotton, barley, oats, sorghum and soybeans. That's it - other crops get nothing. (Although some of them, like sugar, have their own means of making ridiculous profits.)

If anything, these subsides have harmed small farmers. The way in which subsidies are provided is through price supports or direct "per unit" payments, which mean that the more a farmer produces, the more money he/she gets. Nothing could be better designed to drive out "family farmers" and encourage AgriBusiness.

Unsurprisingly, market conditions are also conspiring to shift the market to an oligopolistic structure - returns to scale on equipment, seed, and chemicals are only part of that. There are also good old fashioned monopolistic practices, where large companies demand exclusive contracts at unfavorable terms or simply refuse to do business with farms too small for their tastes. The fact that farmers can buy seed from only a few giant companies, the fact that 40% of food passes through only half a dozen grocery store middlemen, the fact that McDonalds accounts for the largest share of domestic potato consumption - farmers buy from a handful of giant companies, and sell to a handful of giant companies. Why would we expect them to remain small - and succeed?

To be honest, I don't. The same people who clamor for farm subsidies to help the poor farmers (e.g. the Twit in the White House) are the ones most eager to ignore the poor farmers and shovel all the money into the troughs of their friends. It's ironic, actually, that the Republicans, who loudly bray their friendship for the small farmer, are the ones wholly owned by agribusiness, and the most desperate to funnel the money away from those they dupe into being their "constituents".

Okay, it's not ironic. It's just sad.

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra