Few issues have prompted more negative responses than our coverage of the Grassley-Dorgan amendment to the Senate-passed farm bill.
Sun Belt farmers have become accustomed to reading vitriolic criticism from politicians and editorial writers about “the top 5 percent of farmers receiving 49 percent of the payments.” What might surprise you, however, is the number of such e-mails from farmers and persons close to farming.
A fair number have originated in the Midwest where growers must be enjoying a different farm economy than in the Sun Belt, judging from their letters. But many are from producers and businessmen closer to home, taking us to task for “trying to help big farmers get bigger.”
That is a common theme in many — that higher payment limits will only exacerbate the trend to larger and larger farms.
“When riding through the farm country, it is daunting to see the abandoned headquarters signifying the consolidation that occurred within the last 15 to 20 years, much of it resulting from purchases by ‘trust fund farmers,’” said one writer.
“Unfortunately, your magazine seems to be promoting this consolidation of farms by these trust fund babies without realizing that payment limitations help the owners of small to medium-size farms to compete on a balanced economic playing field,” he said.
As someone who grew up on a farm with a 13.6-acre cotton allotment, I can easily relate to the thinking expressed by the letter writer — except for the fact that his premise is faulty.
The writer assumes that the operator of a 600 to 800-acre cotton farm stands a better chance of survival if his larger neighbors are prevented from receiving more farm payments than he does.
In fact, the smaller operator is more likely to have higher costs per acre because he can't spread them over a larger number of acres. That's not to imply that good managers of smaller farms can't survive; just that they face tougher odds given today's much lower prices.
But to blame all of the consolidation on farm program payments ignores the economic realities of high input farming.
Another theme is that a new farm bill isn't necessary now, that the reports of the demise of many farmers have been greatly exaggerated.
These supporters of the “Richard Lugar” school — named for the Indiana senator who wrote Freedom to Farm in 1996 and has been defending it ever since — look at USDA's net farm income projections and ask how farmers could be facing any difficulty.
The answer goes back to the earlier line about the different economy in the Midwest. For all their complaints about big payments to cotton and rice farmers, Midwest growers, as a whole, are receiving a much higher percentage of farm payments than farmers in any other region of the country.
If you look at the payment rates in the assistance bill introduced by Sen. Pat Roberts on March 21 and multiply the corn rate by the average yield and number of base acres in the 11 Midwestern states, you come up with a total of $2.66 billion. That's more than half of the money allocated for all farm program payments for 2000.