Our food in plentiful, but could this be without massive govenment subsidies?

As you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner, you can be thankful that food is so plentiful in this nation and although it might not seem so, I think I’m safe in saying that it is relatively cheap, relatively I say, as compared to what it might be in many other parts of the world. And I imagine that is because of two main factors: one, our nation (the United States of America) has a vast amount of farm land and a variety of climate zones, compatible with a wide variety of crops. We are totally self-sufficient in food production, even though the global market reality is that we also import a lot (but we would not have to in order to survive). Factor two: we have a complicated federal agricultural subsidy system that supports our agricultural production to the tune of billions of dollars of taxpayer money each year.

I write this after reading a story in Politico.com about the current farm bill being worked out in congress, the last one being passed in 2008. Despite having some background (limited to be sure) in agriculture myself, I barely understood anything in the story. I think it was too much inside baseball (or should I say inside farm lobby speak).

Probably few people, outside of the agricultural lobby and besides big farming interests (both corporate and large family farms) understand farm bill-speak either.

One of the biggest hypocrisies I have seen in my lifetime is the fact that farming interests for the most part take the conservative Republican line and decry federal subsidies and social programs to help the poor and what they call the “nanny state”, but don’t seem to consider their own subsidies in the same vein.

But, all that aside, I have often wondered whether the government should even be involved in the farming and ranching business. Why can’t it all just work under the vaunted free market system?

Of course, right off the bat, I can see some reasons why not. Farming requires a lot of investment in land and equipment and knowledge. And usually you are into some kind of specialization and your inputs are not necessarily interchangeable at a whim. If you are big into row crops, you can’t just plant an orchard and harvest it next year. If you are a rangeland cattle operation, you’re not going to turn to planting corn next year. If you run a dairy and the price of milk drops, you can’t just change over to beef cows at a whim (although you can sell your cows for hamburger). And in some cases, federal subsidies underwrite crops that without them would not even be practical for an area. An example is that some distance south of where I live now, vast acerages of rice are grown. Much of that rice is shipped overseas, ironically to areas that at one time may have been self-sufficient in rice growing. Rice growing in the area I am speaking of would not be economical if it were not for federally-subsidized water and rice subsidies from the government. And I am not suggesting this is a bad thing (not sure).

Along the same lines, prices for agricultural commodities on the open market vary from year to year, heck from day-to-day. Deciding what to grow and harvest in order to make a profit is always a gamble. So in order to take some of that risk off the shoulders of producers and thereby in the process stabilize our food (and fiber, such as cotton) supply, we have the subsidy programs.

Now as hard as it might seem to believe in the area where I live, all farmers are not conservative Republicans, but the political line we generally hear from farming interests is conservative get the government and its taxes off our back. So I just wonder if we ought not call their bluff and do so. Get rid of all government price supports and other types of agricultural subsidies.

It’s probably not possible; our whole system depends upon some type of government involvement.

There is this movement toward local and organic farming — kind of like bring your home-grown garden produce to market. I like that. But I doubt we could feed everyone with it.

And one more thing. It is interesting that within the farm legislation (the farm bill) is the food stamp program (there is a move now to cut that back). In my first newspaper job I covered farm news. I was still new to things and had been hearing the Farm Bureau (a kind of non-profit/for-profit business that pretends to be a group of farmers) oppose all types of welfare programs, which food stamps are generally aligned with, and then I attended a meeting of the California Cattlemen’s Association and was surprised to hear its staff of experts tell of that organization’s support of the food stamp program. But then, you have to realize, why not? People using food stamps buy food, produced by farmers and ranchers, some of whom are the same people who oppose welfare programs (as in you ought to work for me for substandard wages).

Agricultural people reading this might take all of this as negative towards them. I don’t mean to be. I have always had an affinity towards people close to the land. My ancestors, and even my own father at one time, were farmers and ranchers, and I have worked a little on farms, and was in the Future of America in High School, and now have spent more than a decade and a half hauling produce in a big truck.

I was just wondering.

Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy the bounty!

P.s.

One of my late uncles farmed for many decades in the San Joaquin Valley of California. He owned 60 acres, not a big spread. He began as a dairy farmer but later went to work for the county and changed over to raising sheep, part hobby, part supplemental income I suppose. I recall him lamenting that the local county farm advisors (a state program, for the most part) were not interested in working with him because his operation was too small. The government agricultural establishment prefers big time I think. My point is that there are a lot of small farmers across the nation who do not partake of government programs, both because they may not be eligible and because the big-time establishment is not interested.

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