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John P. Calvert, Fargo, Published September 14 2013

Letter: Robin Hood in reverse on the farm

Nothing more sharply illustrates the immortal nature of government than the federal farm program, which began during the New Deal as a “temporary” relief measure for the rural poor and which now, in its 80th year, flourishes as a permanent entitlement for the rich. Last year, Uncle Sam dished out another $22 billion in subsidies of which 74 percent went to just 10 percent of farms, most of them owned by millionaires, while hardly anything went to the truly needy. That’s because needy farms – those legendary three-generational struggling, small family farms that are so wholesome they’re disgusting – are virtually extinct. So, the subsidy program must justify itself by sending aid to farms that don’t need it. Today, it’s Robin Hood in reverse: The median wealth of subsidized farmers is about five times that of the urban taxpayers who are forced to pay the bill.

Immune to risk

Farm bills are a cornucopia of privileges, including direct payments for growing specific crops (and for not growing them), export subsidies, import quotas, countercyclical payments, crop insurance, ethanol mandates, marketing loans and so on, all justified by the assumption that agribusiness, no matter how opulent, should be totally immune to risk.

In this state, it is blasphemy to say otherwise. The result is that since 1995, North Dakota’s farmers have snagged more than $15 billion of other people’s money, with the richest 10 percent getting 62 percent of the loot. So, Johnson Farms near Walhalla has accumulated some

$5.3 million, and the Kohler Partnership by Valley City has taken in $4.2 million. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, though a budget hawk, has graciously consented to accept $4.1 million. Even those otherworldly Hutterite colonies around the state have received millions as well.

Subsidies do strange things to the mind: All who receive them will swear that they are good for the nation, good for humanity and good in the sight of God. (An extensive list of North Dakota’s mendicant millionaires can be found at the Environmental Working Group’s website.)

Congress at trough

Nor do those who represent the people’s interests neglect their own. The wife of Frank Lucas (chairman of the House Agricultural Committee) availed herself of $14,584 last year. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., took in $188,570 and Steven Fincher, R-Tenn., who has famously described food stamps as thievery, has received $3.48 million since 1999. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Agricultural Committee, feathered his own nest with $65,431 in 2011. Over the past 14 years, similar relief has been granted to Vicki Hartzler, R-Mo., to Kristi Noem, R-S.D. and to Sen. John Tester D-Mont., each of whom has been given more than $440,000.

Currently, 23 congressmen get direct payments and still others receive heavily subsidized crop insurance. (Who gets what is unknown, since USDA forbids disclosure.) Some 90,000 U.S. investors and absentee landlords get payments, including Mark Rockefeller, who got $340,000 last year just for owning land. Some 2,700 land-owning foreigners in places like Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia, also extract millions from the U.S. Treasury.

Saccharine slop

It may get worse. Among other things, the current House farm bill would increase crop insurance subsidies by another $9 billion, raise price floors for commodities and make the new subsidies permanent.

If this socialism-for-the-rich were finally ended, would the heavens fall? No. Most farmers get along without any federal money; and even when they do fail, the land, buildings and machinery don’t disappear; they merely change hands, as they have historically, by absorption into larger or more diversified operations equipped to survive bad years.

And don’t swallow that saccharine slop about how the rustic charm of the “small family farm” must be preserved. Except in the rhetoric of demagogues, that era has long since passed. Today’s mechanized farms are about as charming as steel mills.

The farm subsidy swindle should have ended decades ago. It goes on and on because of greed, career-obsessed congressmen and a citizenry too distracted to get mad.

Calvert, a regular contributor to The Forum’s opinion pages, is a retired university teacher. Email johncalvert@aol.com