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Big Agriculture feeds at the trough of farm subsidies

SANTA FE, N.M. — The recurring Farm Bill that Congress has been wrangling over lately has long been viewed as a mess by most disinterested observers. The farm assistance program was begun during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression as an emergency measure to save devastated family farmers who then supplied most of the nation’s food; it was never meant to be permanent.

But permanent it has become with a few hogzillas addicted to fattening at the trough. The Colorado Public Interest Research Group reports that since 1995, 75 percent of farm subsidies have gone to the top 3.8 percent of producers – agricultural giants like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Monsanto, who are, of course, in dire need of funds to patch all those creaky shacks on the great plains and replace all those mule teams killed by tornados and dust storms. Sixty-two percent of farmers got diddly-squat.

I think the big boys are up on their boots now, and should be able to fend for themselves. They’re really in no danger of having to load up the hillbilly wagon and trudge westward to California. And do we really need to hand them taxpayer money to produce high fructose corn syrup, the prime ingredient in junk food and soft drinks that are mostly responsible for an epidemic of obesity and diabetes in this country? We are the fattest nation on Earth but are gaining company: Wherever the American diet is introduced, waistlines balloon and diabetes soars.

The federal government gives lip service to a healthier diet, but farm subsidies reflect other priorities – mainly keeping the corporate giants and other well-heeled addicts happy. Jon Bon Jovi, Jimmy Carter, Ted Turner, Mark Rockefeller and 1,500 residents of New York City have received subsidies, including 374 on New York’s ritzy Upper East Side. Some of these sodbusters have invested in farmland and simply get paid to never plant a thing. They wouldn’t know a plow from a parking meter.

The pay-not-to-plant subsidies were intended to keep prices stable during crises, so essential farmers wouldn’t go under. They now serve to inflate prices so perfectly healthy corporations can net record profits, unperturbed by market forces. Subsidies for crop insurance – totaling $14 billion last year – are also riddled with fraud, going to large corporations that can well afford their own insurance. The recipients are classified. Critics say these subsidies encourage risky planting just to harvest the insurance payoff. In North Carolina, a network of insurance agents, claims adjusters and farmers bilked the government out of $100 million over a decade.

The need for reform is widely recognized, but the farming industry seems as robustly defensive to change as Wall Street, where the derivative virus still runs amok. The big ag companies spent $52 million for lobbying during the 2012 election cycle, and the average Congressional representative cringes in retreat.

In the original House bill, an amendment would have capped farm and subsidy size; any company making over $250,000 in profits would not have been eligible for assistance. The amendment failed by a few votes as Republicans fought to purge food stamps from the bill. That program, too, has been victimized by fraudsters, but it should be cleaned up, not abolished. Do we really want desperately hungry people on the prowl, resorting to begging?

Like so many other lip-servicers in Washington, the supposed fiscal conservatives operate in a perverse way. They shovel taxpayer money to rich people who own farmland, which artificially inflates the costs of food for people barely making it; then they want to cut off assistance to poor people who need help buying food.

There are ideal solutions to this mess, but, of course, they have as much chance of passing as asparagus does of sprouting in the Sahara. Once again, the Congress might just roll over the existing bill with all its flaws rather than try for reforms. Some changes are simple: Food stamps could be pruned back to a more detailed purchase list, and anyone receiving a farm subsidy could be required to show up in person to get it — wearing a John Deere cap, sweaty overalls and boots reeking of manure. To weed out talented impersonators, the recipient of our tax dollars must also recite Country & Western’s top 10 hits over the last year.

This makes sense – probably too much sense for Washington. I fear our legacy is going to be: We lost Detroit, but saved the Twinkie.

Travis Kelly is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a web/graphic designer, writer and cartoonist in Grand Junction, Colo.

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