The Cash Croppers: Farm Subsidies 1985-1994

The Top Two Percent of America's Farm Subsidy Recipients, 1985-1994

September 2, 1995

The Cash Croppers: Farm Subsidies 1985-1994: Foreword

The Cash Croppers: Foreword

Say, what ever happened to all that big, bold, post-election talk from the Republican Revolutionaries about ending Federal farm subsidy programs?

What became of all those wanna-be secretaries of agriculture in the Republican party who so irked House Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts ten months ago--William Kristol, Bill Bennett, Dick Armey and so many others in the GOP--who firmly insisted that the overhaul or outright termination of farm programs was the true litmus test of Republican resolve to get the government under control?

And what about that unprecedented coalition of tough-minded, hard-chargin', bottom line guys in the grain trade and ag input business. Weren't they going to sweep away every farm program rule that might fetter the free-market, full-tilt farming of every tillable acre in the land?

As the big debate over the future of farm policy draws to a close, the bold talk of reform among Republicans has faded to an embarrassed whisper about a "freedom to farm bill" that is nothing more than the status quo done up in revolutionary drag. And even that meager effort to address government intrusion in farm markets and taxpayers' pockets is too radical for the GOP's big, bulging farm belt.

The ranks of Republican reformers have thinned to a gutsy, principled few, notably Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Dick Lugar of Indiana and Rep. Dick Zimmer of New Jersey. On the whole, Republicans seem to have concluded that instead of cutting farm subsidies, it makes more sense to slash welfare, nutrition, education, job training and environmental programs.

Not that Democrats as a whole have presented a profile in courage on farm policy. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, for example, convened a series of meetings this summer at which farm policy reformers in his own party were officially lambasted by the farm welfare crowd in the Democratic party, a group of conservatives who call themselves The Coalition. Mr. Gephardt evidently calculated that the defense of every inequity and outrage in farm policy, and the surrender of the greatest leverage he might have on party conservatives, was the best way to win back the House. We think it is, at best, a way to elect more Democrats who vote like Republicans.

President Clinton exhibited an equally bankrupt stance with his hippocratic oath to "do no harm" to farm subsidies, delivered during his "rural summit." The White House strategy is to sit back and let Republicans take the blame for farm subsidy cuts. We think this approach will reap for the President in 1996 roughly the same political pay-off from farmers that Tom Foley, Dan Glickman, Neal Smith and countless other rural Democrats received in 1994, in return for their decades spent delivering the farm subsidy goods back home.

Now, some insiders argue that the President's position is rooted not in political expediency but in a principled belief that farm subsidies are necessary and good for rural America. He should visit Arkansas. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, 80 percent of the farms in Arkansas don't get any farm subsidies. Makes you wonder why and how American taxpayers managed to pump $3.9 billion-worth of farm payments into the state between 1985 and 1994. And here's more cause for wonderment: 29 percent of that Federal farm money ($1.1 billion) went to just 2 percent of the recipients in Arkansas--1,439 corporations, joint ventures and individual farm operators--who averaged more than $785,000 each in government payments over 10 years. The fifty top individual farmer recipients in the state all received more than $500,000 apiece over the decade.

Does anyone seriously believe that rural economic vitality can possibly be aided by this outrageous concentration of taxpayer largesse into the hands of a few large landowners, corporations and general partnerships? The Administration's "guidance" booklet on the 1995 Farm Bill diagnoses the situation aptly: "The rural economy has long been more non-farm than farm...Rural America needs a healthy agricultural sector but it also must have health clinics, affordable housing, sustainable agricultural related ventures, water and sewer systems, fire stations and town halls, and businesses and industries."

What's more, according to the Administration:

"Chronic problems in rural America persist, including lack of employment opportunities, poor housing, high poverty rates, high illiteracy and low levels of education, lack of development skills within local governments, a general lack of institutional and organizational infrastructure, and a lack of access to credit....Thirteen percent of rural Americans have incomes below the poverty line, which almost matches the poverty rate for central cities."(See Note 1.)

What makes these thoughtful observations so fathomlessly empty is that the President turned right around and handed over all the money--and all the political leverage--to commodity crop interests once again. Meanwhile public investment dries up, in rural Arkansas and rural everywhere, for better schools, job training, health care, clean water, and all manner of non-farm economic development initiatives. Farm consolidation continues at a steady pace, accelerated by farm subsidies that mainly help the big boys get even bigger. And far too many rural areas continue to be depopulated, with young people especially prone to moving on.

No self-respecting policy wonk could possibly conclude that the prevailing public interest in rural America in 1995 is well served by a farm subsidy system hatched during the New Deal. Farm subsidies have long since served the narrow, special interest of a few thousand big-time farmers and the corporations and general partnerships they have concocted to harvest the maximum amount of Federal farm bucks. Anyone who, like President Clinton, vows to "end welfare as we know it" should commit to no less an ambition for agriculture and rural policy.

But the prevailing ambition in the White House and on Capitol Hill is to craft a 1995 Farm Bill that guarantees agri-business as usual. That is very good news indeed for the top 2 percent of the nation's farm subsidy recipients. The cash crop they'll harvest from American taxpayers extends bountifully before them, as far as the eye can see.

Kenneth A. Cook