A couple of nights ago, as we were relaxing and only half listening to some politics show, something caught my ear. It was a senator–or maybe it was a rep–talking about the “fiscal cliff” as usual. As he was ticking off places Washington could cut costs, he tossed off the phrase, “paying farmers not to farm.
Yes, the farm bill may become part of the fiscal cliff package, and while it will be good to finally have it settled, that should make us all a little nervous.
The farm bill usually goes for five years and covers such diverse things as food stamps, crop insurance and subsidies to those who grow certain types of crops. For the past half decade, the farm bill subsidies for big growers of corn and soybeans in particular, has been blamed for contributing to obesity and poor school lunches.
The “paying farmers not to farm” is aimed at direct payments that guarantee farmers a certain price. Basically, it’s welfare, with much of it going to large growers. It got its start in the Depression as a way of propping up prices in desperate times. ( For a good explanation on the bill, check NPR, or Scientific American.)
The farm bill has been blamed for a lot of evils, just because of the way it’s set up. Saving farmers from financial ruin doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. After all, we did it for the big banks and GM. But when you mess with a system that more or less rules how millions of acres are farmed, there are so many ways to go wrong. Write the subsidies one way, and you end up encouraging farmers to plow up every available square foot, with no resting between crops and nothing left over at the end of fence rows.
And okay, that means less pheasants and quail. But if you continue on down that road, you begin to have problems. If you’re a home gardener, or even if you’re just someone interested in food, and people begin doing crazy things with millions of acres next door, there’s pretty much nothing you can do to escape. You’re going to suffer the consequences along with everyone else.
I grew up in Iowa farm country. All my relatives farmed. So I heard a fair amount of farm bill talk back in the day. For a while, there was a lot of scorn heaped upon the idea of government payment for acres set aside for conservation. But my grandparents, who remembered the Dust Bowl, knew different. Government intervention of just that type was what it took to convince cash-desperate farmers to do the contour plowing and other conservation methods necessary to save what was left of the topsoil. (for a really scary picture of what it was like back then, watch PBS’s two-part special on the Dust Bowl.)
Now we’re in tough times again. The government is looking to save some big bucks. Here in Kansas City, we’re still in a months-long drought. The pieces are in place. Let’s hope Congress keeps its head on straight and gives us good conservations measures while it cuts back on some of the corporate welfare.
I can dream, can’t I?