In Defense of Farm Policy

July 24, 2013

In the days before the Internet, it was difficult to really know how the general public felt about any certain issue because, except for the occasional letter to the editor, feedback from the public was scarce to non-existent.   Thanks to the coming of the information age, most articles are now followed by a “comment” section, which allows readers to sound off immediately, unfiltered, and announce their thoughts on the article they just read. 

It’s nearly impossible to read an article about the Farm Bill, farm spending or the farm safety net and not see a comment section peppered with questions revolving around the issue of why farmers deserve some degree of taxpayer support. That is a fair question, and it deserves to be answered. 

The reason why the government – both federal and state – has always been involved and should continue to be involved in the agriculture sector uniquely comes down to two simple words: food security.  

There is a fundamental need for nations to have the capacity to feed their citizens and not rely on foreign powers, which can sometimes change their allegiance, to provide such basic necessities as food.  If you doubt this statement, think about how uncomfortable many Americans are with the thought of importing our energy needs. 

For this reason, the roots of government involvement in U .S. agriculture are actually as old as the nation itself.   Government involvement began with the founding fathers of the nation and carries the fingerprints of other great Americans who followed.

In 1799, after years of colonies and states granting tracts of land to citizens encouraging people to plant crops and begin commerce, George Washington called for the establishment of the National Board of Agriculture to collect information on the nation’s agricultural inventories.  It was President Abraham Lincoln who established the USDA in 1862, a Department that has grown since then to include promoting agriculture trade, working to assure adequate and safe food and striving to end hunger in America and abroad.  

But putting food security aside, there are still a number of things that set farming apart from other businesses. 

First and foremost is agriculture’s near-complete dependency on the weather.  A crop represents a farmer’s source of income for a year, grown and cared for (an expensive endeavor) over the course of spring and summer, but can be completely ruined by one nasty hail storm in the fall.  Take Iowa: in 2011, farmers saw historic flooding along the Missouri River, wiping out tens of thousands of acres of prime farmland.  In 2012, the state suffered its worst drought in decades, triggering enormous financial losses.  And in 2013, as the Cedar Rapids Gazette noted, “the wettest spring in 141 years of record-keeping is testing farmers’ mettle and heightening the tension between agriculture and the environment.”

You must also consider the economics of farming commodities.   In a nutshell, and as the saying goes, “farmers are price takers, not price makers.”  They produce a commodity that is sold to processors who turn it into the things we eat.  Yes, some farmers can try to distinguish their products from others, thus justifying a larger margin at sale, but the foundation of the food supply is staples like corn, wheat, soybeans and rice. Additionally, prices for these commodities are set by the world supply and demand, not the local market, making their bottom lines very susceptible to the policies of other nations, which are generally far more tilted toward their farmers and against U.S. farmers.

Over the last decade, government involvement in agriculture has slowly decreased and has turned from a direct assistance paradigm largely into crop insurance, which must be purchased by the individual farmer.  Unlike programs of the past, when farmers sign up for crop insurance, they get a bill, not a check.  And unlike programs of the past, farmers can only collect a crop insurance indemnity if they suffer a verifiable loss.

The government’s limited role and keen interest in agriculture is and always has been necessitated by the fact that if our citizens do not have access to ample, affordable and safe food, the country cannot prosper.  

There’s a “thin green line” of only 210,000 full-time U.S. farms that produce more than 80 percent of our food and fiber. These farms are family enterprises facing tight margins to feed more and more consumers.  They are vital to our well-being and they deserve our support.