Opinion Columns & Blogs

Time to stop bailing out rich, famous, dead farmers

U.S. House conservatives, led by the Freedom Caucus, torpedoed the 2018 Farm Bill last month. As well they should have. While they sank it mainly for tactical reasons related to immigration reform, this legislation deserved to founder on its merits.

This $867 billion, five-year behemoth choked with goodies for growing some crops and not growing others. In short: business as usual.

A reformist, pro-market, Trumpian GOP Congress should know better. As the Senate now crafts its own such measure, it should follow New Zealand’s example and separate farm and state.

Facing national bankruptcy in 1984, Auckland’s former Labour government totally extricated itself from agriculture, save for food safety inspection and relevant trade diplomacy. After farm subsidies ended, handout-addicted growers learned to compete internationally. And they thrived.

If that ideal is beyond reach, the least a limited government-oriented Congress should do is restrict federal payments to actual farmers who — imagine this — till soil and harvest crops. Such checks should reach only those who earn less than, say, $100,000 annually.

Alas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture currently pumps gravy into well-heeled areas that have not seen a tractor since they last staged Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” For fiscal years 2015-17, these payments to individuals, businesses and other entities reached:

Aspen, Colo.: $278,800 to 25 recipients

Palm Springs, Calif.: $310,420 to 56

Beverly Hills, Calif.: $527,000 to 51

Fisher Island (Miami): $702,000 to 9

Malibu, Calif.: $712,860 to 24

Palm Beach, Fla.: 957,000 to 124

Park City, Utah: 1,800,000 to 251

Urbanites also gleaned agro-largesse. While these cities are less uniformly affluent than the garden spots above (Fisher Island’s zip code is America’s most prosperous), they are concrete jungles, where the wind does not come sweepin’ down the plain:

Los Angeles: $1.7 million to 349 recipients

Washington, D.C.: $2 million to 369

New York: $3 million to 419

Chicago: $8 million to 1,257

All told, in FY 2017 alone, 958,700 recipients scored $13.2 billion in farm supports, including 5,921 entities whose payments exceeded $250,000 each. These folks alone hauled in some $3 billion.

These facts and figures are from Open the Books. This Chicago-based non-profit aims to place every dime of government spending on line, in real time. I am proud to serve on its advisory board.

Soon after addressing Manhattan’s Gatestone Institute last month, Open the Books president Adam Andrzejewski told me: “Our data show that the farm subsidy program became so lucrative that wealthy investors piggy-backed on a growing government program and added farm subsidies to their investment portfolios.”

Beyond rich communities, loaded people also enjoy ag checks, thanks to taxes yanked from the pockets of bus drivers and waitresses. These government-funded celebrity farmers include NBA star Scottie Pippen, media mogul Ted Turner, Tony Award winner Bruce Springsteen, rocker Jon Bon Jovi, and raving anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.

One need not even be alive to collect these bailouts. According to a November 2011 report by then-U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “In July 2007, GAO found that USDA paid $1.1 billion over six years to 172,801 deceased farmers.”

This outrage has shriveled but not died. “Between 2008 and 2012, $10.6 million was paid to farmers who had been dead for over a year,” The Economist reported in 2015.

Democrats and Republicans defend this extravagance as a desperately needed tool “to save the family farm.” But that exalted institution is more relic than reality. Ma and Pa’s farm of yesteryear largely has yielded to today’s massive agribusiness facilities. Simultaneously, the percentage of Americans who cultivate the earth full time has plummeted from 38 percent in 1900 to 2 percent today.

Perhaps the Smithsonian should fund a dozen family farms as, essentially, open-air museums of agriculture. Those so inclined can see how family farms once looked — complete with wandering chickens, Billy Bob riding a combine, and Betty Ann milking Daisy, the cow. With the family farm thus preserved for eternity — like Colonial Williamsburg — the remaining farm subsidies should be drop-kicked into the nearest thresher.

Deroy Murdock is a Fox News contributor and a contributing editor with National Review Online.