Beltway pundit takes on the Food and Farm Bill

Photo of a farmer from the Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Collection Robert Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, takes a look at the Food and Farm Bill and doesn’t like what he sees:

The farm legislation proceeding through Congress symbolizes much of what’s wrong with Washington. It’s government by inertia. We do today what we did yesterday, because politicians draw their power from distributing benefits and various interest groups feel entitled to receive them — even if they serve no defensible public purpose. Our extravagant farm programs capture the absurdity as well as any other.

It’s great to see the pundits at the Washington Post try to write about actual policy, instead of personality profiles, or who’s up and who’s down, or how some important event influences the fine points of political strategy in Congress. Unfortunately, this leads to the occasional display of a lack of understanding. In this case, the how meat is produced in America. Samuelson writes

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?….

If subsidies vanished, some high-cost farms would cut production or switch crops. Some land values would drop because one source of income (federal payments) would disappear. Still, food supplies would be ample. The proof: the rest of agriculture that manages without federal largess. In 2005, meat output alone (beef, chicken, pork, veal) totaled 86.8 billion pounds. (my emphasis)

Mr. Samuelson seems to not know that American meat is made out of corn. Perhaps he has not read the writings of Michael Pollan (perhaps because Pollan is a New York Times writer) or looked at the USDA Feed Grains Database Yearbook (isn’t that on everyone’s reading list?). Table 4 of the yearbook which shows that about 50% of the corn grown in the U.S. is used for animal feed. One of my posts at Growers and Grocers earlier this year looked at a Pioneer Press article that said, "Corn is the dominant ingredient in livestock feed. And feed forms about half the cost of raising beef cattle and more than half the cost of raising chickens. It’s a whopping 65 percent to 75 percent of the cost of raising hogs." (my emphasis)

Thus, government subsidies to corn growers allow the meat industry to buy feed at a price below the cost of production. Not a direct subsidy, to be sure, but a result of farm policy.

Near the end of the column, he makes this rather extreme statement: "Farming has become the economy’s most pampered, protected and subsidized sector." The farming "sector" might be pampered and protected, but most farmers certainly aren’t (perhaps Samuelson got that impression from talking with some of the subsidy recipients in the Washington, D.C. area). Most farmers are not being pampered by subsidies—they are just scraping by, often requiring outside sources of income (like a spouse working full-time off the farm) to keep the farm from going under. As the Kansas-based Parsons Sun reported in two articles, subsidies are causing trouble in rural communities. And so the problem isn’t subsidies themselves, it is who gets them and why they get them.

Photograph from the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, reproduction number LC-DIG-fsac-1a34130 DLC. Photo description: "Son of Jim Norris, homesteader, tying corn into bundles, Pie Town, New Mexico."

4 Responsesto “Beltway pundit takes on the Food and Farm Bill”

  1. Whigsboy says:

    I read this yesterday and thought the same thing. As I wrote in a post on my own poorly-red blog last night, pundits these days, unfortunately, are a lot like politicians: they don’t like facts to interfere with their blanket assertions.

  2. Flaime says:

    Of course, hogs can grow on corn just fine. They don’t have enough fat, for my tastes, but their digestion of corn is good.

    Cattle, on the other hand, get sick eating nothing but corn. That’s why there are so many anti-biotics in the food chain. Corn. I say, eliminate all corn subsidies. They go to large corporate farms far too often for my comfort anyway.

  3. Thanks for setting the record straight to Samuelson (who is a total free trader) execrable column.

    Subsidies do not benefit commodity farmers for the most part. They benefit the agribusiness corporations who BUY and PROCESS the cheap corn/soybeans. Farmers get subsidies to make up for the low prices that never cover cost of production. In recent years, before the demand-driven ethanol boom, corn was going for under $2! the same amount as in the 1970s!

    It’s the likes of Tyson/Smithfield and their factory farms, along with ADM/Cargill who make high fructose corn syrup, who really benefit by the billions from our subsidy schemes, not “millionaire farmers,” no matter what Ken Cook and his rancid database at EWG says.

    David Moberg hit it in this article:

    Family farm groups agree we should cut subsidies–but in it’s place we need to go back to what worked during the New Deal, and that’s to set a price floor under the commodity, to give farmers a fair price, so farmers can earn their income from the likes of Cargill and Tyson and NOT taxpayers. And we need to have a supply management system to curb overproduction and end dumping abroad. Right now, we have NO grain reserves (got rid of in the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act) and are one drought away from $10 corn and catastophe.

    For a farm policy that would help family farmers and save taxpayers money while making agribusiness pay, check out the Food from Family Farms Act promoted by a host of progressive religious, farm and development groups at

  4. If we could just get our government to scrap the subsidies, and I mean all of them, farm, fuel, mortgage, etc, then the market forces would settle out after a bit of churning. The overly cheap, corn/soy fed confinement raised meat would skyrocket in price. Pastured pigs, chickens, cows, sheep and such would then once again gain market share to our health benefit as well as being better for the environment.