Farm Subsidies – Safety Net or Rip-Off?

Between the years 1995 and 2005, there were 1,671 agricultural subsidy recipients in Rogersville. These individuals received a total of approximately $3,884,869.00. (For a complete listing of recipients, go to Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy database.)

Some local farmers receiving funds between the years of 1995 and 2005 were:

Bobby Hurd – $ 370,387.18
JB Richards – $ 202,678.89
Roger Stewart – $ 176,223.46
Ted Cope – $ 163,341.36
William S Davidson Jr– $65,169.14
J.D. Myers – $ 65,021.24
Vicki S Jeffers – $10,663.01.
Bruce Hurley – $ 11,580.37
Fodell Webb – $ 7,752.45
Chili Sanders – $ 5,076.73
Ken Givens – $ 4,893.16
J. Carmel Maddox – $ 3,475.37

A few Hawkins County farmers receiving subsidies between 2003-2005 were: Murle Webb (totaling $15,937) Randall Collier (totaling $5,066) and Lawrence Gray (totaling $3,288.)

As you may have noticed many operational farms, which serve as a primary source of income (such as the Davidson Family Farm, the Couch family operations and Myers Pumpkin Patch) received a moderate amount of federal funding in comparison to owners of large tracts of mostly unused land.

Essentially, those with more land profit from subsidies – whether they farm it or not.

The truth is small independent operations/producers are not benefiting from the current system. According to the Heritage Foundation, commercial farmers with an average annual income of $200,000 receive the majority of US farm subsidies. And according to many experts, this trend tends to inflate land prices and production costs, driving out small family-owned farms and encouraging consolidation.

Of course, proponents say subsidies continue to be necessary. They enable domestic (ag) operations to compete with the foreign imports. This leaves the US less vulnerable to trade pressure. Another argument is that subsidies stimulate overproduction and drive down the cost of food. This reduction in cost, which is financed by taxpayers, benefits families below the poverty level. (These families pay less in income tax and spend more on food.)

It is a convoluted redistribution of wealth. It is also ineffective, which is why many are calling for reform.

In June when Citizens Against Government Waste released their Report Card on Farm Bill “Reform” Proposals CAGW President Tom Schatz said:

“The nation’s agriculture policies have been a monstrous financial burden to taxpayers for decades. Congress failed miserably to terminate the bloated subsidy programs in 2002, which provides perverse incentives, repudiates basic free-market principles, and is one of most egregious examples of corporate welfare in our history.”

Few Americans, particularly those in rural areas, are opposed to weaving some type of safety net for domestic crop producers. We understand that farming is an harsh and “inconsistent” industry. Revenues can vary drastically from year to year as production/yield depends on factors (such as weather) beyond our control – and annual profit margin depends on market price, which is influenced by international crop yield.

However, most of us would also tell you the current system isn’t working. It has turned into a intricate web of inefficient, unbalanced bureaucracy (Then again, is there any other kind?)

Often, subsidy payments are made with no restrictions. Recipients are under no obligation to grow the crop being subsidized. They can switch to a different crop or raise cattle or even grow a stand of timber and still get the government payments.

Many of the subsidies are distributed to people who do not farm. According to the Washington Post, the federal government has paid at least $1.3 billion in subsidies since 2000 to individuals who do no farming at all while another report on farm subsidy programs found that the U.S. Agriculture Department paid $1.1 billion to 173,000 dead people. (Payments to estates are allowed, if heirs or personal representatives are still farming- however, the “Government Accountability Office says agriculture officials haven’t been very aggressive in determining whether the farming ended with the deaths of the original recipients.”) Even when agricultural land is developed into housing subdivisons, payments continue and homeowners collect subsidies on their backyards.

This year, President Bush asked Congress to direct the subsidies to the smaller, family farmers – but according to the CAGW, Congress has failed. Amid a great deal of controvery, Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona and Congressman Ron Kind of Wisconsin offered an amendment to the Farm Bill, implementing an income limit to make sure no subsidies go to farmers with a yearly income over $250,000. The amendment was intended to gradually reduce direct payments and reform the bloated crop insurance program. The measure failed by a vote of 309 to 117.

For the final version of the House bill – head here. The Farm bill is scheduled to hit the Senate floor sometime in September.

So – what do you think Hawkins County? Should these subsidies be limited to operational farms? Should there be restrictions or requirements attached to the funds? Is this an effective safety net for local farmers or a rip-off benefiting larger operations and landowners?

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