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Farm bill matters, but few people care

June 16, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

Policy. Remember that? It’s what America used to discuss back in the day, before we became obsessed with birth certificates and the 47 percent.

Policy is what the government does, instead of how it does it or why — two questions that are admittedly more entertaining, but ultimately immaterial to our daily lives.

If we would spend one- tenth of the energy debating the current farm bill as we have over Benghazi we might actually get somewhere in terms of moving the nation forward and addressing some real problems ranging from the national debt to childhood nutrition.

Indeed, our indignation knows no bounds if we are talking about $200,000 that a federal agency frittered away at a Las Vegas “conference.” Meanwhile a mammoth, trillion-dollar piece of legislation affecting a decade’s worth of governmental policy waltzes by under our very noses with nary a discouraging word.

The bill passed the Senate this week and is now headed for the House, where the “cut government to the bone” instincts might actually be of some use, although money politics is more likely to prevail.

Senators were quick to send out press releases praising the farm bill in its current form — and true enough, the farm bill does some good things, although many of those things have only theoretical ties to tractors and seeds.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., likes the bill in part because it will help expand broadband to more rural communities. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., appreciates that the farm bill will help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

That’s fine, but what of actual farming?

Well, a lot of farming issues these days leak out into the world of energy or high finance.

A real farm bill, for example, might address the growing ethanol disaster, a well-intentioned initiative that has driven up food costs, gobbled up land and gummed up small engines nationwide. Meanwhile, the (corn) energy produced by a gallon of ethanol is only slightly greater than the amount of (oil) energy to takes to produce it.

But, knowing a good thing when they see it, farmers have hitched their wagons to guaranteed ethanol production, planting every available square foot in corn, either to protect themselves against escalating corn prices or to sell directly to the inflated corn markets.

That means less land planted in other grains, which drives up their prices as well — along with the bread, pasta and cereal they’re used for.

All this artificial price movement gets the commodities markets to lick their chops, and they’ve leapt into the fray just as they have done with gasoline. That means that our daily staples — milk, meat, grains and fuels — are now at the mercy of Wall Street gamblers, and anyone who followed the housing market in the past decade knows how that tends to turn out.

Sugarcane would be a far more efficient source of ethanol than corn, and would not have the food-related implications. The problem, directly related to this and past farm bills, is that the makers of sweet, food-like substances hate the idea, which they fear could drive up the cost of their key ingredient.

Sugar producers, meanwhile, whose profits are guaranteed by the government at the expense of taxpayers, do not want to see a change in the status quo, which guarantees a minimum price and protects them from foreign imports.

Add to this stew the government’s war on obesity, which puts it in the weird position of paying to get more natural, unsweetened food to school children at the same time it is essentially paying for more and more sugar production.

Even this is somewhat better, I guess, than programs that pay people (farmers or not) for crops not grown. But in U.S. farm policy, logic need not apply.

Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., has collected nearly $3.5 million in farm subsidies since 1999, yet he recently invoked the Bible to argue for a $20 billion cut in the farm bill’s food stamp program.

But there will be no cuts in crop insurance, a program so overboard in its largesse that even in the recent Midwestern drought, some farmers seemed embarrassed to take the cash.

Of course even the word “farmer” today is a misnomer. Better than three quarters of all these lucrative farm handouts go to agri-business corporations that are about as close to the land as Brooks Brothers is to sheep.

But these problems are hardly worth our time. IRS keyword searches, however, now that’s something we can sink our teeth into.


Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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