By Denny Banister
I did a slow burn as I read yet another column in a popular magazine decrying farm subsidy abuse by “well-to-do operators of large industrial farms” who “line up at the public trough” and “soak up subsidies.” The timing of the article is not a coincidence with Congress writing a new farm bill this year.
The article mentioned names of rich and famous people who receive farm subsidies because they own farmland, a journalistic tactic designed to anger taxpayers even though the rich and famous are hardly representative of the vast majority of the farmers who actually receive farm subsidies.
Then there are the charges of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) paying people not to raise crops, generating letters to the editor from folks who say they’ll be glad not to raise crops to collect tax dollars. Is the charge true, does the government pay you not to raise crops? Yes, they do – and no, they do not!
Some states are blessed with flat fertile farmland where soil erosion is not much of a problem, but Missouri and many other farm states have a lot of rolling farmland with varying degrees of slope, and farmers must use the resources they have.
At the behest of environmental organizations, Congress created the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to entice farmers to grant long-term leases of highly-erodible land to the government. Farmers pay the taxes, but are allowed only limited use of the land. CRP is not a farm program, but an environmental one billed to the USDA.
There is also a Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), again an inclusion in the farm bill to come from the USDA budget. The WRP is a permanent or long-term lease arrangement to the government where landowners convert acreage from farmland to wetlands to nurture wildlife.
If the environmental critics of the farm subsidies are honest, they will tell you they are all in favor of these environmental programs and especially in favor of the USDA paying for them from the farm bill. I contend they criticize farm subsidies that go to farmers, not farm subsidies that enhance environmental agendas.
One of the biggest critics of farm subsidies is the Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG President Ken Cook testified before a House Ag Subcommittee recently requesting a dramatic increase in federal agricultural conservation programs. To me, this means…‘don’t subsidize farmers for producing our food, instead use that money for environmental programs to return farmland back to nature, and then we can still claim farmers are being paid not to farm.’ Sweet!
One of the rich and famous people mentioned as a benefactor of farm subsidies is Ted Turner, the billionaire who founded CNN. Turner, the nation’s largest landowner, reportedly received $590,823 during a 10-year period for farms he owns that are enrolled in conservation land. How dare they compare Turner to real farmers!
Is it right Turner receive the money? From my perspective, some ultra-wealthy people have a knack for beating the government out of taxes, whether finding loopholes not to pay or finding loopholes where they get paid federal tax dollars. Don’t trash the farmers, fix the loopholes.
What I find particularly interesting about Turner is his foundation is listed by the Environmental Working Group as one of the private charitable foundations whose grants supply the majority of EWG’s funding. Turner funds EWG, then EWG lists Turner as one of the rich people receiving farm subsidies.
Seems to me Turner is collecting tax dollars to allow EWG to use his name as an example of misdirection of tax dollars. EWG then lobbies to take the farm subsidies and direct them to environmental purposes both EWG and Turner support. I’m feeling sick to my stomach.
(Denny Banister, of Jefferson City, Mo., is the assistant director of public affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization.)