The New York Times
August 14, 1986, Thursday, Late City Final Edition
SECTION: Section A; Page 23, Column 2; Editorial Desk
LENGTH: 700 words
HEADLINE: Buying Off the Farmer
BYLINE: By James Bovard; James Bovard writes frequently about agriculture.
BODY: Federal farm programs have degenerated into a morass that bleeds taxpayers
without benefiting farmers. We will spend some $30 billion on farm programs this
year - plus another $10 billion or so in higher food prices. Yet rural America
Instead of dishing out subsidies that artificially prop up the industry -which
President Reagan praised during his visit to Illinois this week - we could provide
small loans to help people get out of the farming business permanently.
Federal price supports encourage farmers to boost production to the hilt, creating
enormous surpluses. But at the same time, the Agriculture Department is paying
farmers to idle 30 million n res in an effort to reduce harvests and thereby raise
prices. The Government paid 156 dairy farmers more than a million dollars apiece
this year to butcher their cows. Yet it still gives bonuses to the remaining dairy
In May, for the first time since 1959, the United States imported more food than
it exported - possibly signaling the demise of the world's breadbasket. Federal
handouts to farmers this year will likely exceed both net farm income and American
agriculture exports to the rest of the world.
What's more, Federal policies have greatly decreased the efficiency of American
farms. British farmers now produce twice as much wheat per acre as American farmers.
Australian farmers can produce milk and cheese at half the price America's farmers
do. Generous Federal handouts are proving to be financial Pyrrhic victories for
Several farm lobbies have responded by proposing a war on progress. A new hormone
for dairy cows has been shown to boost milk production by up to 40 percent, which
could result in sharply lower milk prices. But some national farm organizations
favor banning the hormone, primarily because of a concern that it will reduce
employment for dairy farmers.
Our farm policies are bushwhacking our allies and bailing out our enemies. The
farmers in Thailand are ranting against our rice subsidies, the Latin Americans
against our sugar subsidies, the Uruguayans against our beef-dumping. The list
goes on. Recently the Reagan Administration agreed to give huge subsidies to the
Soviet Union as a bribe for buying American wheat. Why don't
(c) 1986 The New York Times, August 14, 1986
we simply give the Russians direct military aid?
American farmers need more than sentimental bosh and buckets of tax dollars to
survive and prosper. By treating farmers like a welfare class, we have crippled
their incentive to maximize productivity and adjust to rapidly changing times.
If Congress has its way, the Agriculture Department will spend a hundred years
''easing'' farmers into the free market. But the longer we take to adjust, the
further ahead the foreign competition will be. While members of Congress are busy
delaying the inevitable adjustment, foreign farmers are busy increasing crop yields
and taking over markets.
There is nothing that makes agriculture inherently different from other sectors
of the economy. Pernicious policies that would disrupt any other productive endeavor
will not somehow have beneficial effects on farmers.
If America is to exploit its natural advantages of a stable political environment,
well-informed farmers, excellent crop land and superb infrastructure, then the
Federal Government must stop disrupting markets and shielding farmers against
their own mistakes. If we want prosperous farms by the late 1980's, we had better
end agricultural welfare now.
A humanitarian solution is to give small loans to help people get out of the farm
business rather than to try to maintain a permanent surplus of farmers hopelessly
addicted to Federal aid. Current policies are like giving 25 cents to the bum
in front of the liquor store - enough to keep him hanging on for a short time,
but far too little to solve his problem.
The more farmers who leave the land, the easier it will be for remaining farmers
to make an honest living. Federal programs create permanent surpluses that depress
market prices, thus making it harder for all farmers to earn a living. The sooner
we get rid of the agricultural safety net, the sooner American farmers will again
dominate world markets.