Farm policy difficult for federal government

By Jim Suber

National farm policy, in my personal view, has behaved over time like a lurching, overweight and clumsy machine driven by amateurs and causing more harm than good.

Its successes have usually been compensatory reverses from disastrous or overly complicated programs like the old set aside and Payment in Kind programs.

The do-overs haven’t exactly been sterling, but some like freedom to farm and the Conservation Reserve Program and a long evolution of crop insurance have been workable.

The wrangling and political rhetoric from Washington and the federal outlets where the rules and regulations are meted out are often tiresome and unsettling.

Regular people preoccupied with earning a living and worrying about their hometown schools staying open, threw up their hands or left the farms and ranches years ago.

At first, several agricultural sectors tried to avoid being caught up in farm policy. I grew up in free wheeling southern specialty crops—pecans and fruit.

Next door were the strictly controlled peanut and tobacco enterprises. I planted pine tree seedlings as a kid on weekends and after school from Nov. 15 to March 15 (the dormant time) as part of a custom service designed to help farmers participate in the old USDA Soil Bank program, a forerunner of set aside and CRP schemes.

The beef cattle industry shrewdly stayed pretty clear of federal machinery for decades, but the herds and feed yards are surrounded today and subject to what amounts to daily harassment and sniping from a plethora of regulatory factories working overtime to justify their own existences.

Into the early mix were slipped entitlements like food stamps. Former Kansas Senator Bob Dole was a clever tactician. He is credited with putting food stamps into the USDA in order to bring urban congressional clout to the farm program policy-making table.

After a couple of decades, food stamps and companion school food and senior food were soon outweighing farm payments inside the USDA budget process by a huge margin, something like 84 to 16, the entitlements to farm payments ratio while Kansas’ Dan Glickman was Secretary of Agriculture as far back as the Clinton years.

Of course, candidate Mitt Romney has now latched on to the wild growth rate of food stamps under the Obama administration—something like 32 million recipients in 2008 compared to 46 million now. Many people still don’t know that food stamps come from the USDA.

Romney was in Iowa not long ago and spoke to farmers near Van Meter briefly about his farm policy plans.

He wants to lower the income tax rate, he said, from 35 percent to 28 percent; he wants to end the death taxes; he noticed there has been no farm bill under Obama and he promised to work with both sides of the aisle and to have a plan for rural America and its farms.

He promised to reduce regulations, mentioning federal efforts of late to resurrect dust control and federal control of water in ditches.

Federal policy in anything is difficult in a complex, modern and diverse place like our nation is.

Farm and rural policy have never been easy or always smartly done or applied. It seems to take years to get things working well enough to not be a total object of contempt.

After watching it for 60-plus years, I think government’s underlying farm and rural policy should include standing by ready to help, but otherwise staying out of the way and letting producers produce.

I also think that when farm policy comes up and people from town yap about farmer subsidies, they should also be made to tell the proportion of farm payments to overall entitlements out of the same agency to schools and the poor and the women with infants and children.

The public would be shocked.

Hint: food programs alone cost more than $100 billion a year.

That’s more than 10 times what producers receive in the most costly years. So, shut my mouth.

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