Farm Subsidy Web Site Sows Discord:
December 19, 2001 6:31 AM   Subscribe

Farm Subsidy Web Site Sows Discord: "Suppose you could go to a Web site, type in the names of co-workers--or maybe your boss--and find out how much money they make. Be honest--you would. And farmers, it seems, are no less curious than the rest of us. Since its public debut on Nov. 6, a new Internet-accessible database that ranks farmers by name according to the amount of federal subsidies they receive has recorded 10.1 million searches. The payments often constitute the bulk of farmers' income, and many of the hits have been by farmers eager to know how they compare with the guy growing corn or soybeans down the road." (Washington Post story, which C-SPAN pointed me to.)
posted by Carol Anne (20 comments total)
Great link, thanks Carol Anne. I don't know enough about farm subsidies. Well-spent federal dollars? Welfare for white people? I tend towards the latter. Any farmers here on MeFi?

(BTW, by welfare for white people I mean welfare in the popular pejorative conception of it, not the actual AFDC/Medicaid and related programs, which I'm totally sympathetic to. And I know whites are on AFDC also.)
posted by luser at 7:15 AM on December 19, 2001

yeah, what a great link. I grew up in a small rural town, so I did a quick search and recognized at least half of the names. I had no idea how much money farmers were getting from the government. But, like luser, I have not made up my mind whether it's a good or bad thing. I just don't have much information about it. Does anybody here feel strongly either way?
posted by jnthnjng at 7:22 AM on December 19, 2001

Not to be too left about this, but when you see what Bicket Farms in Kentucky got (2.6 mil), it makes you wonder why things like Amtrak and healthcare and education are so under-funded. I should be a farmer.
posted by panopticon at 7:34 AM on December 19, 2001

I live in a rural area. I did a search, and recognized the names. While I was initially surprised at the amounts, please realize a few things:

1. The people whose names I recognized do not live lavish lifestyles or have nice houses and cars.

2. Running a farm is very expensive. Most of the people I know are carrying staggering amounts of debt (staggering to non-farmers). It is not unusual for a farmer who received $100,000 in subsidies over 5 years to have debts in excess of $1,000,000.

3. The amounts also include moneys from important federal programs like CRP, promotion of wetlands preservation, and the like. Granted, that's a small portion of the total dollars, but I don't have a beef with it at all.

All that being said, I wish I owned a section or two of land so I could hold out my hand.

Oh, my view on a "solution" - local sustainable economies. Quick question: why are chickens raised in kentucky sold in south dakota, while chickens raised in south dakota are sold in tennessee?
posted by yesster at 7:51 AM on December 19, 2001

Do we REALLY want to pay people to NOT plant crops? Does Ted Turner really need government assistance?
posted by machaus at 8:09 AM on December 19, 2001

Yep, there's something seriously wrong when much of these subsidies aren't going to "family farms" but to corporate agribusiness and millionaires who don't need the freakin' subsidies, while some genuine family farms aren't getting needed subsidies because of it...
posted by hincandenza at 9:31 AM on December 19, 2001

I've asked my question (see my previous post if you give a shit) many times, in many different forums, and nobody has ever answered it. I was hoping for a response from the normally intelligent crowd here at MetaFilter.
posted by yesster at 10:00 AM on December 19, 2001

Farm subsidies are really a vision of the future for many U.S. industries. These companies can't compete in a global marketplace with America's high labor costs and regulations, so the only way to keep jobs here is for government to heavily subsidize U.S. industry. It's already happening (couldn't find some of the best examples). Agriculture just happened to get hit by these market forces much earlier than other sectors of the economy.
I am not knowledgeable enough to know whether this is sustainable or not, but it sure is depressing.
posted by dal211 at 10:05 AM on December 19, 2001

Quick question: why are chickens raised in kentucky sold in south dakota, while chickens raised in south dakota are sold in tennessee? ... I've asked my question (see my previous post if you give a shit) many times, in many different forums, and nobody has ever answered it. I was hoping for a response from the normally intelligent crowd here at MetaFilter.

snippy are we yesster? Maybe no one took time to answer it because the question is disingenuous and too clever by half. But I'm going to help you out, and I'm going to do it in as condescending a tone possible due to your "normally intelligent" crack.

Let me rephrase it a little more honestly for you and see if that helps. "Why are chickens sold to buyers irrespective of those buyers' proximity to the chicken's home?" Answer is, chicken owners want access to more buyers. I presume you would deny them that. In fact, some Kentucky chickens are bought in Kentucky, and some S.D. chickens are bought in S.D. No one is stopping this, but no one is shutting out non-local buyers because that's not fair to the farmer. In 2001 geography is a difference without a distinction because perishable foods can go just about anywhere, and put down that banana right now you hypocrite.

Hope that helps. That was fun, wonder why nobody's done it before.
posted by luser at 10:18 AM on December 19, 2001

All that being said, I wish I owned a section or two of land so I could hold out my hand.

It does not work that way. You have to maintain the land, plant cover crops, shred weeds and keep it from blowing out the neighbors. Hard work involved in this "free money".
posted by bjgeiger at 10:19 AM on December 19, 2001

luser - It is a pretty sound principle that you get more of what the government subisidizes. So given a choice between subsidizing poor people and crop production, pardon me if I choose the latter.
posted by Real9 at 10:24 AM on December 19, 2001

Real9: "The federal government has used three main approaches in its efforts to stabilize agricultural prices. [1] Since overproduction resulting from an unregulated farm economy deflates prices, the government has bought and redistributed farm surpluses. [2] To diminish the likelihood of overproduction, the government has also encouraged farmers to leave a portion of their farms unplanted. [3] Finally, the government has directly supported prices through farm subsidies."
posted by Carol Anne at 10:50 AM on December 19, 2001

Yes real9, when you pay farmers to keep supply down and prices up, under that sound principle you'll get more nothing, and as Dylan said "Too much of nothing/just makes a fellow mean."
posted by luser at 11:03 AM on December 19, 2001

Carol Anne - I reject the quoted premise that an unregulated farm economy necessarily causes overproduction, at least in a persistent manner. However, I will concede that the government policies are directed at subsidizing agricultural production capacity as opposed to actual goods. And, an over capacity has consequenced.
posted by Real9 at 11:06 AM on December 19, 2001

Certainly US and European farm subsidies hurt my country a great deal. New Zealand is largely dependant on agricultural exports. Our farmers are NOT subsidised, owing to our perverse compliance with every free trade agreement going. But we have to compete with price supports, subsidies, import quotas, and every other dishonest boodle you can think of.

We can sell meat and dairy products unsubsidised to the other side of the world, at a cheaper price and better quality than the locals can manage. But you can't buy what you want from us, except in limited quantities and jacked-up prices, because your governments don't want to lose rural votes.

Most Western democracies give disproportionate weight to the votes of country people, and it is this which is ultimately the problem.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:18 AM on December 19, 2001

Farm subsidies are one of the worst government boondoggles/shakedowns around. Why is farming any different from any other industry why we have to cut what are essentially small business owners a check because they can't compete? If we do it for farming, why not anything else?
posted by owillis at 11:44 AM on December 19, 2001

i'm a real estate appraiser. every year i listen to various farmers piss and moan about poverty as i volunteer on a board which grants tax (valuation) reductions. many many times, the reward for compassion is to then watch as they sell the property to developers for 10 times what it was originally valued at. this database has revealed to me that one of our most obnoxious, put upon, poverty stricken, annual complainers has, over the last 4 years, netted just under $200,000 in federal subsidies. $50,000/year is a very comfortable income for rural michigan. very comfortable indeed. and thats just the subsidy. consider: what is the value of a piece of land which will perpetually generate $50,000 annually independent of any cultivation activities also occurring on that land? i'm going to publish this data in the township newsletter, and i'm rubbing my hands together in anticipation of thier annual appearance this year! every tax dollar the farmer escapes is a tax dollar the non-farm resident makes up instead. it's way worse than welfare - its a friggin scam!
posted by quonsar at 12:06 PM on December 19, 2001

I talked to my father-in-law about this over lunch. He's got a sizable operation going in the panhandle of Texas. He said that he would gladly give up any subsidies if the government would eliminate price caps on crops. He also said that the subsidies pay for a lot of environmental initiatives that would be unaffordable to farmers otherwise (e.g. CRP land). Oh yeah, he also said he had a $1.2 million dollar note at the bank that's paying for the crops in the ground now.

All in all, I'm glad I'm not a farmer.
posted by CRS at 12:10 PM on December 19, 2001

I sent the link to my Dad as soon as I found out about it almost a month ago (he runs the farm that I grew up on in southern Minnesota). By the end of the day, most of the farmers in town knew about it, printouts were posted at the local cafe, and it was the talk of the town.

owillis, the reason that farming is different than any other small businesses is that farmers of commodities (maize, soybeans, cotton, etc.) cannot control the production of those commodities as a group. For an individual farmer to maximize his or her profit, he/she must produce as much commodity as possible. They can't limit their production the way a manufacturer does because one farmer does not influence the market enough to significantly change the supply. Also, because they are takers of price rather than askers, and they can't pass environmental costs on to the consumer. Without subsidies, almost nothing would be done to protect the environment.

The 1996 Farm Bill tried to do exactly what you suggest, but it failed because it did nothing to improve the situation on the input or output side of agribusiness. Farmers face huge and powerful vertical monopolies on both sides of them. Two companies control more than 60% of the corn and soybean genetics that are planted each year. Two companies control the entire Mississippi grain transporation system (and they even tried to merge!). This is just in the grain business, but meat, poultry and other sectors have similar problems.

The current subsidy system is screwed up because it pays a farmer based on the amount that he/she produces, rather than how it is produced or what sensitive land is protected. The net effect is the big farmers get bigger, compete their neighboring smaller farmers out of business, and go to the trough to collect their check.

But in the end, the farm subsidy program won't matter much in a few years because the average age of a farmer in the US is 54 years old, and most will be retiring soon. More and more people grow up and leave the farm for better opportunities in the city. There is little opportunity to pass the farm on to the next generation. All that will be left is a feudalist rural society where there are big corporations that own the land and employees that live on it and run it.
posted by hobu at 7:38 PM on December 19, 2001

The net effect is the big farmers get bigger, compete their neighboring smaller farmers out of business, and go to the trough to collect their check.
god bless america! (wiping tear from eye)
posted by quonsar at 8:35 PM on December 19, 2001

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