EARLIER this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture disbursed nearly $5 billion in direct payment subsidies to farmers across the country. The payments support struggling family farms from going out of business, keeping the American Dream of owning a small farm to provide for a family's livelihood while adding fresh healthy food to the marketplace.
Well, that's the romantic notion that many have about the farm subsidy program, anyway.
"While many checks go to actual farmers, a significant number will go to trust funds, movie stars, millionaires, hedge funds and people who have done nothing more than fly over farms their entire lives," said the Environmental Working Group, an organization which has made reform of the farm bill a priority.
The farm subsidy program is another example of a well-intentioned Depression-era government rescue program gone berserk.
The New York Times reported in September that the Government Accountability Office found that recipients of the direct payments at 2,300 farms had grown no crops at all for the past five years, and 622 recipients had grown no crops for a decade. The Times reported that 18,000 recipients live in 54 of America's largest cities.
But the $5 billion direct payment program is just part of the $30 billion that U.S. taxpayers shell out each year in farm subsidies. How much more free money is doled out to people who don't need it?
The Environmental Working Group reported that gross revenues from farming operations nationwide have more than doubled over the last decade. Farmers' net cash income is now 2.5 times higher than it was 10 years ago.
"Economic conditions for farmers are at historic highs by every measure and they have more borrowing power than ever," EWG reported. "Even small and medium-sized farms, that once depended on direct payments to buy supplies and pay back loans, are enjoying record net cash returns."
Few people are advocating for the elimination of farm support programs. West Virginia is seeing its own resurgence of farming, which deserves a basic level of support to get small farmers started.
"We should, of course, ensure that farmers with limited equity can acquire the seeds and materials they need to put a crop in the ground each year," the Environmental Working Group said. "But there are better ways to accomplish that goal than by sending billions more dollars to non-farmers, millionaires and farmers who simply don't need them."