Farmers Take Boston Globe to Task

May 30, 2009

The Boston Globe’s May 26 editorial against farmers and farm policy was nothing new—it included the arguments opponents of agriculture have been using for years.

What was new was the speed with which the agricultural community responded to these attacks to point out the misinformation, and in some places, completely erroneous claims.

Former Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest was among the first to take the newspaper to task, submitting the response below within hours of learning of the editorial.

As a former House Agriculture Committee chairman, I believe your May 26 editorial distorted the facts about the people who feed and clothe our country and the policies on which they depend.

People, not corporations, comprise U.S. agriculture with families owning and operating 98 percent of farms, according to USDA. Because of agriculture’s high risks and low profits, large agribusinesses are on the processing and marketing end of the food business, which are not supported in the farm bill.

And President Obama’s recent proposal to slash the farm bill budget was not aimed at entities with $500,000 in income as the editorial contends; it targeted farms with $500,000 in sales.

There is a huge difference in sales and income—as any newspaper with millions in sales but little profit can attest. This proposal would injure nearly every full-time farmer in the country and jeopardize the production of three-quarters of the nation’s food.

Crop insurance, singled out as “welfare” in the editorial, is as indispensable to the farmer as car, health, or home insurance is to every Bostonian. But, given the risks of farming, no company would offer it without partnering with the government.

Lastly, the farm bill budget has fallen drastically over the past decade and was just cut again in the 2008 farm bill. Today, it represents less than one-quarter of one percent of the total federal budget. To put that into perspective, we spent more on a single bailout check to Citigroup.

Seems like a pretty good deal considering agriculture employs 21 million Americans and produces the safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply the world has ever known.

Larry Combest
Spokesman for The Hand that Feeds U.S.

But Combest wasn’t alone. American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman also made some excellent points in his rebuttal, including:

Farmers are price-takers, not price-makers. Because of rising costs of energy, fertilizer, and other inputs, most farms (whether selling $500,000 of agricultural products or not) see a slim profit margin, if any. Yet, the United States continues to have one of the most affordable food supplies in the world, even though many other countries subsidize their farmers with up to double the support.

What little taxpayers really pay to help farmers—a fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget—is significantly realized in the overall quality, safety, and affordability at the grocery store. Any change in farm support would not only put many farms in financial jeopardy, it would reverberate throughout the rural communities they support. Our system of family-oriented agriculture is worthy of the small public investment it receives.

Krista Ubbenga, who grew up on an Illinois farm, zeroed in specifically on targeting farmers to slash federal budgets in her response.

“Do you realize the huge dollar amounts that farmers deal with?” she wrote. “It’s not unheard of for operating expenses to be larger than sales revenue. There are other places spending cuts can be made.”

Well said.