Bill Riley

A ll we seem to hear about the U.S. Farm Bill is that Congress can’t renew it because of the part of it that pays for SNAP (food stamps), but not much is said about farms, farmers and food.

The first Farm Bill was a federal government response to one of the Great Depression’s spectacular market failures, when piles of harvested grain lay rotting in rural America at the same time that people in the cities were starving. Farmers couldn’t afford to lose any more money by trying to move the grain at free market prices.

Congress had no choice but to have big government manage the market. It still does today, and the Farm Bill has been renewed every five years since 1933. The last Farm Bill was renewed in 2014, when commodity prices were at an all-time high, and it is set to expire again Sept. 30. Historically it has passed with broad bipartisan support, except from the extreme fringes of both parties.

I think national security is the basic purpose of the Farm Bill. Whatever happens, we must never become dependent on another nation to feed ourselves.

Taxpayers cover some of the farmer’s financial risks through farm subsidies, including crop insurance, in order to minimize the number of farms lost to bankruptcy. This help should be going to families who depend on their farms for income and are struggling to stay afloat, but that’s not what’s happening.

Last year, subsidies to farmers, not counting crop insurance payments, were more than $12 billion. According to an article by U.S. News, the largest 15 percent of farms got almost 85 percent of the dollars, whether it was needed or not.

These are all complex partnerships and corporations run by people who never set foot on a farm. This occurs, in part, because subsidies are tied to specific crops: corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, rice and peanuts. Growers of vegetables, tree nuts, fruits and most livestock receive nothing.

Crop insurance provides an incentive to grow as much as possible because the price is guaranteed. This sure-bet, backed by U.S. taxpayers, encourages the biggest farms to get bigger and then claim insurance payouts when yields fall short. (Too-big-to-fail Big Ag?)

Today’s falling commodity prices are largely due to oversupply, at the same time as crop insurance puts no limits on the amount of these subsidies the largest farms can collect. Yet, beginning farmers, farms with diversified crops and enterprises, specialty crop operations, organic farmers and farmers using non-wholesale markets can’t get any of these.

Hope may be on the horizon for crop insurance reform, because H.R. 4865, the Crop Insurance Modernization Act, is tackling some of this. Not so with the Farm Bill renewal. Significant numbers of members in Congress are saying their unproductive rankling may make an extension of the “same old” 1994 bill all they can accomplish.

So, maybe all we can do now is ask, “What are a few things a Farm Bill could do?” How about:

Help young people who want to buy and start farms with finances and training to operate successful businesses so they replace the huge number of soon-to-retire farmers.

Provide incentives to integrate conservation practices into farming operations.

Help family farmers produce and sell food that builds rural economies by processing, manufacturing or otherwise adding value to what’s grown in the local area. Don’t crops that fly-out right after harvest seem to leave fly-over rural areas behind?

Reduce risks and provide incentives for farmers to open sales opportunities in new and emerging markets.

Develop new and strengthen existing infrastructure that connects producers to consumers. What if those city folk on the west side became our direct customers?

In spite of what we see and hear in media propaganda, whether a government program is small, medium or large isn’t what matters, only whether or not it is good government. This liberal big government program can, once again, be that good government.

Editor’s note: The Union County Republicans could not find a writer to discuss the Farm Bill topic this week.