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

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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