The San Francisco Chronicle



HEADLINE: Fascism On the Farm

1990 The San Francisco Chronicle, MARCH 31, 1990



BODY: As Carl Pescosolido, a grower in Exeter, observes, ''When they say I can sell only 58 percent of my oranges, it's like someone taking 42 percent of my land.'' Because the Department of Agriculture prevents farmers from selling harvested oranges to their fellow citizens, some farmers are feeding their over-ripe oranges to cattle instead.


The controls are part of USDA's system of marketing orders, dating back to 1941. The department announces each week in the Federal Register how many oranges it will allow California farmers to ship. Marketing orders seek to create an artificial shortage of oranges in order to drive up prices. If a farmer ships more than USDA decrees, the Justice Department will come after him with its heavy guns.

Marketing orders are the clearest relic of the Mussolini school of agricultural economics -- a program based on the New Deal philosophy of prosperity through ''universal monopoly and universal scarcity.'' USDA believes that growers of some fruits and nuts cannot be trusted to wisely sell their own crops -- so it ''protects'' them by nullifying their right to sell their harvest.


The orange marketing order is a parcel of absurdities and inconsistencies. While the government maintains a stranglehold on California farmers, Texas and Florida orange growers are not restricted by the federal government. USDA also has no controls over imports. The higher prices caused by USDA's marketing orders have helped spur a fourfold increase in orange imports since 1983. Uncle Sam thereby treats Chilean and Spanish orange growers far better than California farmers.

Marketing orders conflict with other federal programs. In 1982, a total of 83,000 tons of navel oranges were fed to cattle. Representative George Miller noted that 72,000 tons of those oranges ''were produced by federally subsidized water, a result insulting to the people of the country.'' One federal agency spends over $ 50 million a year to give farmers in dry or near-desert regions cut-rate water -- and another federal agency then prohibits the farmers from selling their crops.


USDA's ''orange police'' are doing a good job of protecting Americans against overdoses of Vitamin C. This is especially unfortunate for the poor, who frequently have severe Vitamin C deficiencies. But, according to USDA official Ben Darling, ''Oranges are not an essential food. People don't need oranges. They can take vitamins.'' Maybe the public should be grateful that USDA is not also in charge of vitamin marketing.

1990 The San Francisco Chronicle, MARCH 31, 1990

The most absurd aspect of the oranges cartel is that it punishes consumers without enriching farmers. California farmers would be better off if they could sell all their crop, even at reduced prices. As Pescosolido says, ''No USDA bureaucrat has ever been able to answer a single question: Can you tell me how my economic welfare is improved by your making it illegal for me to sell the product of my labor?'' Federal controls have even depressed farmland value. A 1986 Journal of Law and Economics study found, ''The inflation-adjusted, average per acre price of California orange groves fell by 17 and 24 percent, respectively, between 1958, the first year for which data are available, and 1984. During the same period, the real value of farm acreage in the U.S. and in California more than doubled.''


Other crops are also controlled by marketing orders. USDA routinely forces farmers to annually waste or squander up to 500 million lemons, 70 million pounds of almonds, 200 million pounds of raisins, 5 million pounds of filberts and millions of plums and nectarines in order to drive up prices. This is the dark side of federal paternalism -- a side that may extend to grain, cotton and other farmers in future years.

It is a crime that Uncle Sam bans Americans from eating more California oranges. Marketing orders exemplify the principle that underlies much of our farm policy -- that USDA can make America richer by forcing individuals to do wasteful things. Markets are not perfect -- but the political-bureaucratic alternative is often perfect idiocy.