Our View: Common-Sense Lessons for Critics of American Agriculture

February 11, 2015

The critics of farm policy are so desperate to be relevant in a town bent on reform that they continue to gin up so-called news stories where none exist, using outdated numbers to point to issues long ago corrected. Poor L.A. Times for taking the bait recently and printing propaganda, instead of real news.

But, this presents a valuable opportunity to educate the critics on farm policy and the many changes that have taken place throughout the years.

Let us explain.

Senator Joni Ernst, the first woman to ever represent the state of Iowa in Congress and self-described farm girl, delivered the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address. In it, she described life in rural Iowa where she plowed fields, helped her dad in construction, and learned the value of hard work and living simply.

Seems harmless enough, right? But, some would have nothing of it and days later the readers of the L.A. Times woke up with this gem of a headline: “Sen. Joni Ernst learned to ‘live within her means’ — on the taxpayer’s dime.”

In the story, reporter Michael Hiltzik consulted what he calls the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “authoritative database on farm supports” and found that her grandfather, uncle, and father (not Ernst herself, mind you) received farm supports. And, this caused poor Michael to cry hypocrisy, criticizing American farm policy in the process.

But, his reporting plays loose with the facts and leaves out a lot of important context.

Before we get into the specifics, it’s important to remember that EWG’s farm support database covers 1995 to 2012. Since 1995 there have been four farm bills. Each of those farm bills changed farm policy to reflect the times in which they were written, and as such, federal funds to farmers have declined rapidly. In the case of the Ernst family, almost no farm policy support has flowed in more than a decade.

This important fact was omitted from the L.A. Times story, as was the fact that the 2014 Farm Bill made sweeping changes by cutting farm policy spending by more than 30 percent. It eliminated direct payments, a fixed payment that farmers received once every year regardless of market conditions or natural disasters, and focused on risk management where farmers pay into the system with their own money and receive supports when they suffer significant losses.

This shift to risk management, this emphasis on farmers having skin in the game is a disclosure one will never find on EWG’s website. EWG has put so much stock in this database to publicly shame hardworking farmers and ranchers while simultaneously using it as a fundraising tool to grow its multi-million dollar operation that it can hardly afford to tell its donors and the world that its database is largely outdated and irrelevant. To read their reports and “news” releases, one would think today’s farm policy is straight from the Great Depression era. Sadly though, many newsrooms across the country never take the time to dig a little deeper.

Which brings us back to that L.A. Times story attacking the senator’s farm family claiming they’ve been doing “quite nicely…thanks to her fellow taxpayers.”

Based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service data, over the period of time from 1995 to 2012, for every $1,000 a family farm received in support to provide certainty to an inherently risky business, the same family farm spent more than $16,000 to produce a crop. If every government policy had a 16 to 1 return on the investment, America would be in far better shape today.

Not to mention the fact that this small investment enables roughly one percent of the population to feed the remainder.

American farmers and farm policy should be applauded for an ability to constantly adapt. Its critics should, at least, have the respect to do the same and actually read and understand farm policy, economic data, and history. Their old talking points are no longer relevant.