If America’s farmers faced economic ruin, one might argue seriously for the $286 billion in agricultural subsidies currently before Congress. But as today’s farmers enjoy sky-high incomes, this bill’s advocates soon may explode into laughter while pleading for the perennially doomed “family farm.”
In fact, agricultural prices, profits, and property values all are up dramatically, some at all-time highs.
Washington cannot control inflationary factors like petroleum prices or Chinese and Indian food demand. But ethanol mandates, subsidies, and import tariffs are within Uncle Sam’s grasp, and farmers are benefiting from the federal corn-ethanol bonanza. On March 25, corn had climbed 41.1 percent versus one year earlier. Soybeans have soared 73.6 percent, while turning wheat acreage into corn fields helped catapult wheat 126.5 percent.
Farmers respond that fuel, seeds, and other inputs are costlier. True, yet net farm income grew 48.3 percent between 2006 and 2007. Did you get a 48 percent raise last year? Since 2002’s $73.5 billion Republican-led agro-bailout, farm profits have rocketed 118.2 percent, from $40.1 billion to last year’s $87.5 billion.
Also, farmland prices have risen 78.5 percent since 2002.
Meanwhile, this bounty’s recipients usually are not the “family farmers” who inhabit our popular psyche. The legendary “family farm” is largely as quaint as Grant Wood’s 1930 painting, “American Gothic.” While mom-and-pop farms remain, most U.S. agriculture involves corporate mega-farms rather than pitchforks, barns, and overalls.
“Fifty-one percent of agricultural subsidies go to ‘commercial farmers,’” says the Heritage Foundation’s Brian Riedl. “Commercial farmers’ have an average income of $200,000 and an average net worth of $2 million.” Riedl cites the Environmental Working Group’s indispensable database: Between 1995 and 2005, farm subsidies reached the Fortune 500’s Westvaco ($534,210) and John Hancock ($2,849,799), and such charity cases as Ted Turner ($206,948), David Rockefeller ($553,782), Rep. John Salazar (D-Co., $161,084), and Senator Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa, $225,041). Scandalously, such legislators subsidize their own farms. Like a modern day Marie Antoinette, Grassley told MSNBC’s Tom Curry: “I don’t think any consumer ought to be complaining about the price of bread when they’re willing to pay $4 for a gallon of water.”
Existing family farmers are thriving.
Ethanol-fueled grain prices are funding Albion, Nebraska’s roughly 2,000 residents’ increasingly posh lifestyles. “New McMansions are sprouting up,” the Wall Street Journal’s Julie Jargon recently wrote. “Farmers have a lot of money to spend,” said corn and soybean farmer Jerry Carder, who bought a 2008 Mercedes-Benz ML 350 for $40,000. Corn and soybean farmer Brad Beckwith purchased a $339,000, 4,000-square-foot house last August. He added a flagstone patio, a hot tub, and a 65-inch TV.
Conversely, many Americans who fantasize about five-feet-wide TVs fret about rising grocery bills. Between March 2007 and this March, NBC found, a loaf of bread is up 11 percent. A gallon of milk costs 26 percent more, while a dozen eggs rose 40 percent.
Restaurant checks are climbing, too.
“Every time something happens with corn-fed beef, it just about kills us,” laments Laurel Rainwater, who runs an eponymous San Diego steakhouse. He tells me he has watched beef prices grow 20 percent since 2006. “I am afraid to raise prices, because people aren’t going to keep paying them. But I don’t know what to do. Beef is the highest it’s been in history, and I have been in this business for almost 50 years.”
And then consider the Third World. Along with rising oil prices and tight crop supplies, federal farm policies expand developing nations’ food bills.
As MSNBC reported March 14, the United Nations World Food Program’s executive director, Josette Sheeran, recently said that steep corn, wheat, and soybean prices have slashed WFP’s purchasing power by 40 percent since June. “Fragile democracies are feeling the pressure of food insecurity; food riots have erupted throughout the globe…from Cameroon to Burkina Faso to Indonesia to Mexico and beyond.”
In short, Congress shakes down taxpayers (many in foreclosure) for $286 billion to subsidize farmers already in cornucopian bliss. Their record crop prices, in turn, fatten supermarket and restaurant tabs, which squeeze taxpayers’ wallets yet again. Frightfully, these factors stir Third World hunger and chaos.
If this were Bourbon France, citizens would be at Versailles’ gates, justifiably screaming for justice.