Writing about farm subsidies in The Washington Post, Robert J. Samuelson observes, “most of today’s farm programs are simply income transfers from consumers and taxpayers to farmers … Farming has become the economy’s most pampered, protected and subsidized sector.”

In 1933 FDR signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act under duress, notes Samuelson: “The head of the Farm Bureau Federation warned: ‘Unless something is done for the American farmer we will have revolution in the countryside.'” The Great Depression is history, but farm subsidies live on – totaling $578 billion since 1970. “What has the public gotten for this vast outlay?,” Samuelson asks. “Not much,” he says:

Food would be produced without subsidies. Roughly 90 percent of commodity payments go to farmers raising grains (wheat, corn), soybeans, cotton and rice; these products represent about a fifth of farm cash receipts. Meanwhile, meat, vegetable and fruit producers get no direct subsidies. Does anyone truly think that, without subsidies, Iowa’s cornfields and Kansas’s wheat fields would go fallow? …

Well, maybe farm subsidies “saved” the family farm? … In 1932, there were 6.7 million farms, and the farm population was 25 percent of the nation’s total. By 2002, the number of farms had dwindled to 2.1 million, and the farm population was about 2 percent of the total. More mechanization, better seeds and cultivation practices have enabled fewer, bigger farms to produce more food. …

John Stossel calls farm subsidies “repulsive welfare for the rich,” noting that “[t]he average farmer earns much more than the average American.” He adds:

[E]ven rich nonfarmers have received subsidies – among them the late Ken Lay of Enron; Ted Turner, founder of CNN; my ABC colleague Sam Donaldson; and banker David Rockefeller.

And how absurd is this? “After handing out commodity subsidies that pay farmers to plant more crops,” Heritage Foundation senior fellow Bruce Riedl notes, “Washington then turns around and pays other farmers not to farm 40 million acres of cropland each year – the equivalent of idling every farm in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio”.

It’s time we got over the myth that the government helps the heroic family farm. Riedl points out that “federal farm policies specifically bypass family farmers. Subsidies are paid per acre, so the largest (and most profitable) agribusinesses automatically receive the biggest checks.”

And it’s not just rich farmers enjoying taxpayer largesse. Dead farmers continue to receive the payoffs, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO):

† A North Dakota estate received farm program payments totaling $741,000 from 1999 through 2003.

† An Alabama estate … received payments totaling $567,000 from 1999 through 2005.

† Two estates in Georgia … received payments totaling more than $330,000 each, from 1999 through 2005.

† A New Mexico estate … received $320,000 from 1999 through 2005.

By the GAO’s reckoning, from 1999 through 2005, the USDA “paid $1.1 billion in farm payments in the names of 172,801 deceased individuals. … 40 percent went to those who had been dead for three or more years, and 19 percent to those dead for seven or more years.”

There is another hidden “subsidy” that U.S. taxpayers give farmers: dirt cheap labor in the form of illegal aliens. About 78 percent of the nation’s 1.8 million agricultural workers are immigrants, according to Department of Labor statistics. By one estimate, as many as two-thirds of them are in the U.S. illegally.

The New York Times describes how a series of immigration raids last year in western and central New York “upend[ed] old, unspoken arrangements”:

Here where agriculture is the mainstay of a depressed economy, the mainstay of agriculture is largely illegal immigrant labor from Mexico. Now, more aggressive enforcement has disrupted a system of official winks, nods and paperwork that for years protected farmers from “knowingly” hiring the illegal immigrants who make up most of their work force. …

Federal officials say events here simply reflect a national commitment to more intensive enforcement of immigration laws …

The effort led to a record 189,924 deportations nationally during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up 12 percent from the year before, officials said, and 2,186 deportations from Buffalo, up 24 percent. …

Farm lenders and lobbyists warn of economic losses that will be measurable in unharvested crops, hundreds of closed farms and revenues lost in the wine tourism of the Finger Lakes. On the other side, supporters of stringent enforcement expect savings in schools and hospitals, and a boost to low wages as the labor market tightens. …

Ray Woodhams, 58, a Sodus resident who works at a Rochester hospital that was sued by Hispanic employees who were barred from speaking Spanish, said he was glad to read of the arrests.

“The farmers have got their view, but they’re shortsighted — they’re not looking at the country as a whole,” said Mr. Woodhams, who notes that he is a registered Democrat and the son of a Dutch immigrant farmer. “The farmers say they can’t get labor. Well, if they paid a decent wage, maybe they could.”

So unwilling are farmers in states like AZ and CO to pay American workers a decent wage that when immigration raids dry up the pool of illegals, they prefer to turn to prison labor:”

One generation ago here in Oregon, the crops were picked by high school kids,” said Gordon Lafer, associate professor of political science and labor studies at the University of Oregon. Now, he said, the inmate program tells workers, “for all those industries that couldn’t move to Mexico or China, we’re going to bring those conditions to you.”

“The basic problem is that the pay is so low that it’s difficult for people to accept those jobs,” said Charles Tafoya, executive director of Rocky Mountain Service, Employment, Redevelopment, a job training agency in Denver. “If farm work paid a livable wage like any other industry, they wouldn’t have that problem.”

Those who want to restrict immigration tend to agree that farm wages are too low.

“Like illegal immigration, using inmate labor is simply forestalling or preventing the ultimate solution to this problem, which is, a) to let wages and benefits rise, and, b) at the same time, to mechanize,” said Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports more restrictions on immigration.

Recall that in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” Major Major Major’s father is a wealthy alfalfa farmer who receives a farm subsidy not to grow alfalfa – which he uses to buy more land on which not to grow alfalfa. As he tells his son: “The Lord gave us farmers two strong hands so we could grab as much as we could with both of them.”

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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