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Greedy farmer stories play better than reality

It's an exercise in frustration, folks, all this getting worked up about the anti-agriculture articles in the big city newspapers and on the TV news shows (which aren't really — they've become basically entertainment shows and vehicles for promoting other shows, Websites, and endless partnerships and ventures).

You may as well save your ire. The New York Times and the other major metropolitan newspapers and TV news outfits that are having a field day with “government subsidies to rich corporate farmer” stories don't really have a clue about what makes agriculture tick.

Their preconceptions about big corporate farmers sticking it to the taxpayers makes a far more readable story for their urban readers than an account of how Farmer Jones, who helps put food on their tables and clothes on their backs, is on the ropes financially and likely would be history were it not for those government “subsidies.”

Nor do any of the rash of “exposé” stories, based on payments data made public by the Environmental Working Group, take the trouble to explain that farmers never see a good chunk of that money because it goes to directly to crop lienholders, etc.

One of the most recent examples is a New York Times piece entitled, “Land Rich in Subsidies and Poor in Much Else,” chronicling Stuttgart, Ark., as the setting for “two of the United States' biggest rice processing businesses smack up against neighborhoods of rundown houses and shanties.”

In the surrounding countryside, it says, “decaying towns like Altheimer offer evidence that the area's smaller rice farmers are going out of business at one of the fastest rates in the country… one of the starkest examples of the unintended consequences of the federal farm subsidy program.” Helena, Ark., is characterized as a “once-gracious river town (that) shows the effects of the demise of the small family farmer — all the public schools are boarded up (and) on tree-lined streets, elegant restored houses are flanked by abandoned ones.”

It goes on, with the all-too-repeated litany of how the top 1 percent of farmers in the Mississippi Delta get 26 percent of the payments and the bottom 80 percent receive only 9 percent, that because large farmers get the most subsidies they're buying out smaller farmers, “leading to… a rapid decline of family farms under 100 acres.”

The temptation in reading such dander-raising stuff is, of course, to assert, “Well, there are a lot of run-down neighborhoods in New York City and a lot of boarded-up businesses,” and to point out that if the U.S. food/fiber system were dependent on the production from those much-lamented 100-acre farms, there'd be a lot of empty shelves (and bellies).

But it's to no avail. A mostly urban population has little or no knowledge of agriculture's role in the nation's economy. As long as the supermarket shelves are stocked, it's easy to bemoan all the money going to greedy farmers.

Lord help us if some major disaster disrupts, for an extended period, the food system that is the envy of the world. Hurricane/flood/earthquake-related shortages would seem small potatoes in comparison.

That's probably what it will take, though, to make an impression.

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