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Urban newspapers playing role in shaping farm bill opinion

During a recent swing through the Mississippi Delta, Congressman Jerry Moran of Kansas — chairman of the House Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management — made an interesting comment about the factors working against the passage of a fair and equitable farm bill next year.

Prominent on his list was that a large number of editorials in urban newspapers were “railing against government spending that they say is wasted on agriculture.”

“This is what we face in an increasingly urban nation,” said Moran. “Much of Congress is predisposed to believe agricultural subsidies are a bad thing. The vast majority of people don't understand that payments to farmers are a very small percentage of the farm bill. Sixteen percent of the farm bill is actually payments to farmers. Fifty-five percent of it is spent on nutrition programs.”

At first, it struck me as odd that he would place such a high importance on urban newspaper editorials. Then, during a recent visit to Atlanta to attend an agricultural outlook conference, I opened the pages of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and found this headline staring back at me from the editorial pages: “A tough row to hoe: new national farm policy in planning stages; taxpayers shouldn't sit idle, let agricultural interest sow all seeds.”

The editorial then wastes little time in driving home its point, leading with, “American farm policy is straightforward and twofold: Taxpayers pick up the tab when farmers get financial help that they need; taxpayers pick up the tab when farmers get financial help they don't need. With billions of dollars at stake annually, American taxpayers owe it to themselves to demand a better deal in the next national farm bill.”

Such a blistering attack would be expected from one of the New York or Washington, D.C., newspapers. But you'd wish for better from the capital city of Georgia — the nation's leading producer of peanuts and one of the top cotton-producing states, not to mention the millions contributed to the state's coffers from other crops.

The column continues, making the following observations about U.S. farm policy:

  • With billions of their dollars at stake annually, American taxpayers owe it to themselves to demand a better deal in the next national farm bill. But they'd better hurry; agricultural interests have already staked out their claims on the 2007 farm bill, which will be written next year and will set policy on crop subsidies, conservation, food stamps and other assistance programs for five years or more.

  • The 2007 farm bill represents an opportunity to reform a system that encourages over-production and financial abuse at home; awards a disproportionately large amount of money to a relatively small number of large agriculture operations; and punishes desperately poor farmers overseas by undercutting world crop prices.

  • Taxpayers should insist that the new farm bill furthers free trade, which benefits all citizens, and that every investment of public money produces a worthy public benefit, instead of merely enriching the politically powerful. Unfortunately, though, some agriculture interests are cloaking their financial demands on taxpayers with such appealing slogans as “food safety,” “energy independence” and “conservation.” The real intent of many of the proposals is simply to retain access to the public trough, giving taxpayers good reason to be skeptical.

  • Taxpayers need to carefully weigh suggestions that the next farm bill be expanded to cover more food items, from grapes and mushrooms to watermelons. Produce and fruit growers argue they deserve a piece of the agriculture assistance pie. Instead of crop subsidies, they say, they want research, marketing and disease control help. Even so, their inclusion in the farm bill will cost taxpayers money.

  • Equally worthy of careful scrutiny is the idea of expanding incentives for renewable fuels. The United States needs to develop practical substitutes for oil. But taxpayers should require safeguards to prevent the program from becoming the bottomless financial pit that even supporters worry about. Incentives should be limited to the developers and producers of only the most promising sources of renewable fuel, and those for which private financing is not available. The Agriculture Department's current alternative fuel program should serve as a caution in that regard. Under the existing farm bill, the department has given millions of dollars in incentives to already prosperous ethanol producers. The handouts have simply enriched the producers at the expense of taxpayers.

  • Taxpayers should be equally wary about how the next farm bill encourages land and water conservation. They're already paying farmers and ranchers to keep 36 million acres — an area nearly the size of Georgia — out of production. Stiffer requirements are needed to ensure the program provides environmental benefits commensurate with the public cost. With the collapse of international trade talks aimed at cutting global farm subsidies, some powerful farm interests want to ensure that current agriculture policies continue unchanged. They argue that the status quo would provide a bargaining chip for the United States in the next round of trade negotiations. That's not a bet taxpayers should take.

Congressman Moran makes a good point about the importance of urban newspaper editorials in the continuing farm bill debate. They help to shape opinion, and they do it in the large population centers where farming remains a foreign concept to far too many people. These are people who don't recognize food or fiber until it lands on their grocery shelf, or until it's hanging on a clothing store rack. And these are the same people who don't understand or realize what a small percentage of their income is spent on food and fiber.

The Atlanta newspaper column ends with the following warning: “If taxpayers don't make their voices heard in the farm bill debate, they'll pay a heavy price for that silence.” Simply substitute the word “farmers” for “taxpayers,” and you couldn't have a better piece of advice.

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