Farmers, FFA members, researchers and government officials gave Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns an earful at USDA's first farm bill listening session in Nashville. But what could have been the most controversial presentation wasn't delivered during the forum.
A representative of Oxfam America handed me and other journalists copies of a one-page paper, “Farm payment reform: Reasonable Payment Limits Good for Tennessee,” as we left the event.
Oxfam is the driving force behind a worldwide effort to blame U.S. cotton farmers for poverty in African countries. The National Cotton Council has said the impoverishment has more to do with the marketing system in those countries than U.S. farm payments.
The paper handed out in Nashville did not address poverty in Africa but attempted to link farm subsidies with low commodity prices, overproduction and agricultural dumping into foreign markets.
It repeated claims that the bulk of government farm payments “go to the largest, industrial farms, while smaller operations receive little or no support,” and “Loopholes in the rules allow some to draw virtually unlimited commodity payments, despite rules meant to limit payments to a $360,000 maximum.”
This, they said, has created a negative spiral of effects for rural communities: higher farm concentration, growing costs of farming, commodity overproduction, depressed prices and increased reliance on dumping agricultural products.”
The authors noted Tennessee had a 4 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2004, but the two counties receiving the highest subsidy payments — Haywood and Gibson — lost population. (Having relatives in Haywood County, I can say the 0.9 percent loss in population has nothing to do with farm payments.)
Referring to administration proposals to cap farm payments at $250,000, the paper said such a limit would affect only 34 recipients, 0.03 percent of the “76,963” who received farm payments in Tennessee. (Source: The Environmental Working Group.)
It urged readers to support legislation introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., which would place limits on farm subsidies to individuals, eliminate the “cumbersome” three-entity rule and close the commodity certificate “loophole.”
“Capping subsidies is a fairer solution to solving the budget shortfall than slashing other agricultural programs, such as environmental, conservation or food stamps, which benefits almost 13 percent of Tennessee's citizens,” the paper said.
I asked the Oxfam representative why she didn't speak during the forum. “I went to the forum to hear the concerns expressed by the farmers, and I know that Johanns and the administration are already on board with payment limits,” said Brooke Jamison, Oxfam's trade policy advisor. “However, the forum did confirm that farm consolidation is a major problem for many farmers, and it was clear the current system isn't working for everyone.”
For cotton farmers who keep hoping the payment limit controversy will just go away, that clearly won't be the case.