Fewer farms, richer farmers, and why agriculture subsidies are inexcusable

posted at 1:21 pm on February 21, 2014 by Erika Johnsen

Once upon a time, there were all sorts of politically quaint justifications for why the federal government needed to dish out billions of dollars worth of tender, lovin’ subsidy care to the agriculture sector. Farmers need all of the direct payouts, and the tax credits, and the crop insurance, and the trade barriers that Congress so generously offers them, you see, because food is super important, and the federal government really needs to step in and ensure that we have a stable food supply. Plus, farming is a really tough and risky job, and who’s going to help all of those small, struggling family farmers that will hit hard times in down years?

All of which was and is utter baloney, of course. The federal government doesn’t feel the need to ensure that we have a stable supply of door knobs or washing machines, and yet somehow, we manage to get along just fine — and in fact, the federal government inflicts a lot of damaging free-market distortion onto the agriculture industry that subsidizes overproduction. As for those small, struggling family farmers we’re meant to visualize when we think of agriculture? Farming today is a largely corporate endeavor, and the vast majority of subsidies go to the biggest growers of mostly corn, soy, cotton, rice, and wheat. Those smaller farms growing the organic chard and strawberries the government tells us we’re supposed to be eating? Not so much.

The USDA just started releasing information from its own census report, and surprise: The trend of fewer farms and richer farmers has kept right on rolling, via Bloomberg:

The first batch of data from the Agriculture Census (PDF), a snapshot of American farming released on Thursday, shows that farmers flourished between the last survey in 2007 and 2012, a period that saw crop and livestock values hit record highs.

There were fewer farms in the latest five-year span—the number shows a 4.3 percent drop during the period, continuing a long-term trend—even as the amount of land devoted to farming declined just slightly.

While the average size of farms increased slightly, to 434 acres from 418, the census shows a continuing hollowing out of midsized farms in America. The number of very small farms and very large ones remained constant.

So take comfort in knowing that the ~$200 billion of subsidies in the 10-year farm bill we just passed is being spent — er — fruitfully?


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There is a simple equation which must be applied at all times:

No farms = no food.

BobMbx on February 21, 2014 at 1:31 PM

California drought 2014
23s
======

Federal officials say many farmers caught in California’s drought will receive no irrigation water this year – @AP
end of alert

canopfor on February 21, 2014 at 1:32 PM

All of which was and is utter baloney, of course. The federal government doesn’t feel the need to ensure that we have a stable supply of door knobs or washing machines, and yet somehow, we manage to get along just fine

Of course, I’ve never heard of someone dying because of a lack of a door knob. Food on the other hand…

Stoic Patriot on February 21, 2014 at 1:35 PM

Of course, I’ve never heard of someone dying because of a lack of a door knob. Food on the other hand…

Stoic Patriot on February 21, 2014 at 1:35 PM

If it comes down to it, we could make the worst nightmares of illegal immigrants come true and start frying them for food.

BobMbx on February 21, 2014 at 1:39 PM

If it comes down to it, we could make the worst nightmares of illegal immigrants come true and start frying them for food.

BobMbx on February 21, 2014 at 1:39 PM

Fried alien? With some decent salsa, I could go for that! =P

Stoic Patriot on February 21, 2014 at 1:41 PM

Food on the other hand…

Stoic Patriot on February 21, 2014 at 1:35 PM

Doesn’t have to be grown by large corporate entities receiving subsidies. Efficiency of size you say? Leads to lower food costs? Check out your supermarket prices lately?

butch on February 21, 2014 at 1:43 PM

Of course, I’ve never heard of someone dying because of a lack of a door knob. Food on the other hand…

Stoic Patriot on February 21, 2014 at 1:35 PM

It’s not like we’re paying farmers to NOT farm…oh, wait…

RblDiver on February 21, 2014 at 1:49 PM

Let’s take out soybeans, milo, sorghum, alfalfa and grow corn so we can meet the e-15 mandate.

Nevermind that we have oil and natural gas in abundance. Let’s subsidize corn farmers.

Ruckus_Tom on February 21, 2014 at 1:50 PM

There is a simple equation which must be applied at all times:

No farms = no food.

BobMbx on February 21, 2014 at 1:31 PM

Whoever controls the food supply…

yada yada yada

workingclass artist on February 21, 2014 at 1:52 PM

Doesn’t have to be grown by large corporate entities receiving subsidies. Efficiency of size you say? Leads to lower food costs? Check out your supermarket prices lately?

butch on February 21, 2014 at 1:43 PM

Oh, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to debate the extent of a need for agricultural subsidies. What I was snidely objecting to was Erika’s ham-handed dismissal of farmers’ concerns. There is a perpetual and crucial human need for food. Droughts aren’t predictable, and history has seen more than its share of famines (nor let us forget the Dust Bowl of the 1930s).

Thanks to modern farming techniques we’re far better off today than we have been previously in human history. At the same time, remarks like this:

farming is a really tough and risky job, and who’s going to help all of those small, struggling family farmers that will hit hard times in down years?

All of which was and is utter baloney, of course.

…indicate either an ignorance or lack of care about farmers. You always have risks with industrial equipment, or simply someone doing something which may seem fairly innocent that gets people killed (such as lighting a cigarette which ignites a grain explosion, or people who simply get swallowed by their own grain while standing atop their silos). At some point I should see if I can compare CFOI statistics between farmers and political bloggers.

It also misses another point, which is that since food is a crucial human need, we take our government-created surplus and exploit it for political gain internationally. We dump the surplus on the international market, undercutting other countries’ farmers and making them more dependent on us. That gives us greater political influence when dealing with other nations than we would otherwise have.

So sure, let’s talk about whether or not we need to get rid of agricultural subsidies (I’d favor getting rid of the ethanol fuel mandate), but let’s do so with some sense of perspective.

Stoic Patriot on February 21, 2014 at 1:56 PM

It also misses another point, which is that since food is a crucial human need, we take our government-created surplus and exploit it for political gain internationally. We dump the surplus on the international market, undercutting other countries’ farmers and making them more dependent on us. That gives us greater political influence when dealing with other nations than we would otherwise have.

So sure, let’s talk about whether or not we need to get rid of agricultural subsidies (I’d favor getting rid of the ethanol fuel mandate), but let’s do so with some sense of perspective.

Stoic Patriot on February 21, 2014 at 1:56 PM

Yeah…I remember the cornmeal panic below the border a few years ago.

The ethanol mandate has also made it hard on ranchers…Feed costs are incredible….coupled with droughts in at least 3 big ranching states (California,Texas and Colorado) current conditions make raising cattle particularly dicey.

workingclass artist on February 21, 2014 at 2:18 PM

Green Acres is the place to be,
Farm livin’ with those subsidies,
Land spreadin’ out so far and wide,
I’m in Manhattan and still get subsidized

New York is where I’d rather stay,
I just get richer getting paid,
I just adore a penthouse view,
Uncle Sam keep sending those revenues…

Probably Oliver Wendell Douglas was the last honest rich farmer we had. And then we had Mr. Kimball, the incompetent government “agricultural expert” always “helping” him out.

As far as Mr. Haney goes, please out current Resident of the White House.

It would be funny, if it wasn’t so sad…

ZeusGoose on February 21, 2014 at 2:50 PM

Oops,

As far as Mr. Haney goes, please out see our current Resident of the White House.

ZeusGoose on February 21, 2014 at 2:57 PM

Most of the very large farms are farmed in parcels by sharecroppers/contract, not the landowners.

Kermit on February 21, 2014 at 3:12 PM

http://www.independent.org/publications/article.asp?id=359

The Socialist Roots of Modern Anti-Semitism

By Tyler Cowen

Capitalism and the market economy encourage racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance, while supporting a plurality of diverse lifestyles and customs. Heavily regulated or socialist economies, in contrast, tend to breed intolerance and ethnic persecution. Socialism leads to low rates of economic growth, disputes over resource use, and concentrated political power-all conditions which encourage conflict rather than cooperation. Ethnic and religious minorities usually do poorly when political coercion is prevalent. Economic collapses—usually associated with interventionism—worsen the problem by unleashing the destructive psychological forces of envy and resentment, which feed prejudice and persecution.

While discrimination is present in societies of all kinds, discriminators must pay pecuniary costs for indulging their prejudices in a market setting. Even the prejudiced usually will trade with minorities; bigots attempt to oppress minorities by socializing the costs through government action, but bigots usually are less willing to bear these costs themselves

Farm subsidies preferentially go to big agricultural “rent seeking” businesses and helped to drive out of business the family farmer. Moreover the racism of functionaries in the Department of Agriculture over the decades practically drove black family farmers out of business. Blacks used to be roughly the same % of family farmers as their % of the population – now they are very rare – almost certainly due to the way socialism fosters racial and tribal and corrupt practices.

Mordaukar on February 21, 2014 at 3:13 PM

California drought 2014
23s
======

Federal officials say many farmers caught in California’s drought will receive no irrigation water this year – @AP
end of alert

canopfor on February 21, 2014 at 1:32 PM

That’s gonna Hurt!

workingclass artist on February 21, 2014 at 3:45 PM

farming is a really tough and risky job, and who’s going to help all of those small, struggling family farmers that will hit hard times in down years?

All of which was and is utter baloney, of course.

…indicate either an ignorance or lack of care about farmers. You always have risks with industrial equipment, or simply someone doing something which may seem fairly innocent that gets people killed (such as lighting a cigarette which ignites a grain explosion, or people who simply get swallowed by their own grain while standing atop their silos). At some point I should see if I can compare CFOI statistics between farmers and political bloggers.

It also misses another point, which is that since food is a crucial human need, we take our government-created surplus and exploit it for political gain internationally. We dump the surplus on the international market, undercutting other countries’ farmers and making them more dependent on us. That gives us greater political influence when dealing with other nations than we would otherwise have.

So sure, let’s talk about whether or not we need to get rid of agricultural subsidies (I’d favor getting rid of the ethanol fuel mandate), but let’s do so with some sense of perspective.

Stoic Patriot on February 21, 2014 at 1:56 PM

There Goes the Neighborhood on February 21, 2014 at 3:49 PM

Another thing they don’t wish to mention is that less than 5% of all agricultural subsidies go to “small family farmers” earning an adjusted gross income of $250,000 or less. Not that most people need welfare even at $250K, but the rest goes to those earning even more, much of it to large corporations like Archer Daniels Midland or ConAgra.

Zero it out.

Adjoran on February 21, 2014 at 3:54 PM

farming is a really tough and risky job, and who’s going to help all of those small, struggling family farmers that will hit hard times in down years?

All of which was and is utter baloney, of course.

…indicate either an ignorance or lack of care about farmers. You always have risks with industrial equipment, or simply someone doing something which may seem fairly innocent that gets people killed (such as lighting a cigarette which ignites a grain explosion, or people who simply get swallowed by their own grain while standing atop their silos). At some point I should see if I can compare CFOI statistics between farmers and political bloggers.

It also misses another point, which is that since food is a crucial human need, we take our government-created surplus and exploit it for political gain internationally. We dump the surplus on the international market, undercutting other countries’ farmers and making them more dependent on us. That gives us greater political influence when dealing with other nations than we would otherwise have.

So sure, let’s talk about whether or not we need to get rid of agricultural subsidies (I’d favor getting rid of the ethanol fuel mandate), but let’s do so with some sense of perspective.

Stoic Patriot on February 21, 2014 at 1:56 PM

It’s still baloney. Just because there’s a little truth at the bottom doesn’t mean that the food program is completely over-hyped and counterproductive.

Yes, farming is risky, and yes, we want to make sure the food supply is protected. But the current farming subsidies don’t really accomplish that, and they distort the free market in unhealthy ways.

And the mythos that this is going to support the small American farmer is nothing short of snake oil. Like most subsidies, they’re best exploited by those with nothing else to do, or by major corporations. And while I have nothing against major corporations making money in the farming business, they should be able to do it without government subsidies.

I have a strong suspicion there is more money — and corruption — wasted on agricultural subsidies than on our national defense, and with less justification.

Not that it would be easy to make the comparisons, since so much of the farm program is driven by, say, food stamps and welfare.

There Goes the Neighborhood on February 21, 2014 at 3:56 PM

It’s still baloney. Just because there’s a little truth at the bottom doesn’t mean that the food program is isn’t completely over-hyped and counterproductive.

There Goes the Neighborhood on February 21, 2014 at 3:56 PM

Corrected.

There Goes the Neighborhood on February 21, 2014 at 3:58 PM

Most people don’t understand production agriculture. Erika Johnsen is one of those people.

I love how she first uses lefty logic, describing agriculture as a “corporate endeavor” in her post (even if true, which it isn’t,are corporations somehow evil?), followed by an assertion that somehow because the government does not subsidize doorknobs and America manages to have enough of those, that the food supply is somehow equivalent.

Problem is, the entire nation’s supply of doorknobs could be manufactured by just a handful of outfits. The entire nation’s supply of food cannot. Maybe she plans on eating doorknobs. Even the trend, that farms have gotten larger on average, points to the problem–there are fewer people engaged in production agriculture in this country today than at any time in America’s history. It is a decades long trend, and as the farmers leave, so do the hardware stores, the car dealerships and the economic potential of whole states.

Production agriculture is capital intensive, and unlike Erika’s doorknobs, there’s no guarantee that once that capital is burned you will even have anything to sell at the end. And that’s what this is about–the government is securing that end product for people like Erika, (who I would be shocked to learn had ever visited a farm) than it is for producers who continue to try and grow as much as they can and market it for as much as possible.

Caustic Conservative on February 21, 2014 at 8:53 PM

…there should be 2000 comments here!

KOOLAID2 on February 21, 2014 at 9:32 PM

There is a simple equation which must be applied at all times:

No farms = no food.

There is a simple tool that makes ridiculous comments at all times.

PD Quig on February 22, 2014 at 8:55 AM

Amen, Caustic Conservative. A-freaking-men.

cptacek on February 22, 2014 at 7:21 PM

More people work for Wal-Mart than those who generate the American food supply by engaging in farming as their primary occupation.

Scary.

Scarier yet, that number declines every single year.

Caustic Conservative on February 23, 2014 at 10:09 AM