Support for farmers, rural economy isn't cheap

Thursday, May 9, 2002

190 billion dollars. That's a huge number to try and get your mind to grasp.

That $190 billion figure is the estimated price tag for the new farm bill advanced by the U.S. Senate Wednesday, and critics have argued the bill threatens to return us to the days of federal deficit spending.

Granted, it is a huge figure, even when considering it represents the total bill spread over 10 years. That huge figure is also much, much more than the total of checks issued to farmers. Sections of the farm bill also include the largest single increase in conservation funding in history, plus funds for agricultural research, incentives for renewable fuels such as ethanol and other programs such as school lunches. Also, current limits on payments to different types of farming operations are maintained and the Secretary of Agriculture is required to clarify payments to individual producers.

Sun. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a key proponent of the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act which tried to wean producers off federal commodity price supports, derided this year's measure as a step "backward for farmers in this country."

In a perfect world, farmers would ply their wares on the free market - with demand and supply reaching a balancing point without intervention of taxpayer money. It is this scenario that critics seem to be espousing for U.S. farmers.

But we don't live in a perfect world. We enjoy the low prices found in the supermarket on everything from apples to pork chops, and few would be happy to pay more for those products - even if it means supporting "family farms."

The 1996 farm bill addressed a portion of the issue - money paid in the form of government subsidies. But it didn't improve the market farmers faced when they went to sell their products. In fact, the market for agricultural producers got even worse. Farmers have had four years of record low prices. And the government was forced to enact annual bail-out bills.

But farm bill critics wouldn't jump to figure out the cost of annual bail-outs, if Congress had kept the old bill and commodity prices stayed low.

For those not keeping score, Congress has already spent nearly $30 billion in the form of emergency assistance over the last four years. And we know the negative impact on all sectors of the rural economy when farmers are suffering.

Lawyers don't give legal advice for free. You can't get your car's oil changed for nothing. And farmers aren't going to produce crops unless there is some way they can make a living while doing it.

The farm bill is expensive. But preserving rural America, and paying for our food supply, isn't going to come cheaply.