Commodity farmers are not the only farmers

The Kansas City Star ran a very nice editorial recently, arguing efficiently and accurately for an end to many commodity support programs that unevenly benefit a small niche among American farmers. This line captures the point nicely:

Nearly two thirds of the nation’s farmers — growers of fruit, vegetables, nuts, beef and poultry — do without direct subsidies. The budget crisis is a signal that it’s time for the rest of the farm sector to get along with a lot less of what amounts to corporate welfare.

This disparity highlights the hypocrisy inherent in the USDA’s dual approach to “farm” policy and public nutrition. USDA spends a token amount of money and a lot of hot air promoting a balanced diet heavy on fruits and vegetables and talks up healthy eating habits. It also has various small (relative to commodity handouts) side programs throwing token grant money at “specialty crops” and other supposed niche farms. In case you were wondering, here are the USDA’s own words:

Specialty crops are defined as “fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture).”

Then USDA spends far more on propping up a few selected commodity crops, a fraction of the total diversity of food crops raised in the US, whose abundant presence in the food system makes a nice inverted pyramid from the desired result: corn- and soy-based junk foods are pervasive and absurdly cheap, grain-based meat/eggs/dairy (particularly from feedlots) are prevalent and cheaper than a real market cost, while fruits and vegetables are harder to find, more expensive, and mostly without any direct government support at meaningful scale relative to commodity spending. No amount of healthy-eating cheerleading can counteract the basic economics behind junk food being cheaper due to commodity subsidies.

What is inherently different about commodity crops like corn and soy, as compared to fruits and vegetables, that makes the one deserving of heavy-handed subsidies and the others not? They’re no riskier than produce, which face similar pest, weed, and weather concerns while being harder to store, transport, and market. Corn- and soy-based products have higher consumer demand than fresh produce. Commodities hold no inherent public health or social benefit as compared to fresh produce, and take no more skill or risk on the part of the farmer. So why are the nation’s commodity farmers perpetually presented as desperate struggling honorable souls who need government largess, while produce growers are generally left to fend for themselves, if not criticized or ridiculed for their products being too expensive or hard to find?

Or to phrase it more accurately for my views (and to mirror the Star): if produce growers can be expected to fend for themselves in the free market, so can commodity growers. And if customers were asked to pay the actual free-market costs for commodity-based foods, they’d find our food a lot more attractive.

Advocating reform of ag subsidies is not (or should not be) an attack on commodity farmers; it’s a request to apply farm policy fairly across the board. Few farmers, of any kind, are really ever in good economic shape, and commodity farms are an important part of the social and economic fabric of rural America. Farming of any kind is quite simply a difficult and risky a business, and there is a strong case for keeping farming as a whole a more stable long-term business model throughout the country. So reform can’t be something sudden, just pulling the rug out from under commodity growers.  What’s needed is a two-fold approach:

1) Reforming commodity programs from handouts to basic crop/farm insurance, such that farmers profit or lose on the open market like other businesses, but have basic protection from the disastrous years and bankruptcy that farms are uniquely exposed to, and that private insurance can’t or won’t provide affordably (if at all).

2) Applying such programs equally but proportionately across the board to all kinds of farms, ending the commodity favoritism that skews both agriculture and public health in the wrong direction.

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