Food Policy

The Farm Bill for Billionaires

Farm subsidies are a menace, especially when they line the pockets of the wealthy.


David Joles/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Earlier this week, reports indicated that Republicans in Congress, now taking another stab at passage of another bloated farm bill, would attempt to eliminate an Obama-era change that had reined in taxpayer-funded farm subsidies paid to many of the wealthiest American farmers. Also now on the chopping block, the reports claim, are limits on subsidies paid to family members serving as nominal farm co-owners—such as spouses or kids.

When these caps were put in place, they were little more than baby steps in the right direction. They were the first of many needed agricultural reforms, nearly all of which involve Congress and the USDA giving away less of your money. But elimination of these minor reforms would confirm almost all of what critics of both Washington lawmakers and farm subsidies have long contended: they are unnecessary, embarrassing, shambolic, shameless, ossified, counterproductive, abominable, and grotesque.

Congress's despicable plan to re-subsidize wealthy farmers was revealed just days before a new analysis from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that monitors farm subsidies, revealed that tens of thousands of Americans had received farm subsidies (or other taxpayer-supported payments) every year for more than three decades.

The totals EWG's research revealed are nauseating and outrageous. Using USDA data from 1985-2016, EWG determined that nearly 28,000 farmers had received more than $19 billion over more than three decades. Ten recipients received at least $8 million each over this period. Per farmer, the totals reveal these 28,000 or so farmers got an average of more than $675,000 of taxpayer subsidies over a little more than three decades.

Billionaires and multimillionaires have long been among those who receive farm subsidies.

"Typically, subsidies have benefited wealthy, larger farmers who farm just a handful of crops and who should not—and, flatly, do not—need them to succeed," I write in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable.

Those who've received subsidies over the years, as I also note in my book, include a who's who of famous rich Americans who aren't farmers, including Paul Allen, Charles Schwab, Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, and Scottie Pippen.

But it's not just actors, sports stars, and software billionaires who've taken advantage of farm subsidies. Member of Congress are also in on the game.

For example, the family farm owned by former Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), averaged nearly the $100,000 per year in subsidies during the nine years Berry was in Washington, according to a 2006 Arkansas Leader report, after he "sign[ed] over 25 percent of the stocks in his farm corporation to his son [and his] farm manager, to meet a federal requirement that 50 percent of the ownership of the farm corporation must be actively involved in the operation to be eligible for subsidies."

Former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), for example, "received $251,000 in farm payments between 1995 and 2006," reported Politico, while railing against the excesses of government programs.

"The next farm bill should ensure that farmers are getting help during tough times, not an annual annuity," said Scott Faber, senior vice president with the Environmental Working Group, in an email to me this week. "Any farm bill that claims to promote self-sufficiency should end repeat subsidy payments, regardless of need, and make sure payments flow to farmers who live and work on farms, not to billionaires, city slickers and distant relations."

What should be done with farm subsidies? Faber's proposed reforms are a start. But so were the caps Republicans in Congress have now proposed to eliminate.

All farm subsidies should be eliminated immediately. No farmer should receive subsidies, regardless of size, profitability, crop choice, or other factors. Congress can't be trusted with farm policy.

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  1. But what about the children?!?!?!

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      1. Bundt cake?

  2. I saw once that farm subsidies are an emergency arrangement from early last century, and that all that’s needed to cancel them was a signed declaration by the president that the “emergency” is over…

    Is there any truth in this?

    1. Whether there is or not, it doesn’t explain why all those other countries have ag subsidies too.

      1. If other countries subsidize their farms, so they can sell products below cost, we should take advantage of it and buy as much as we can, until those foreigners decide they don’t want to subsidize US consumers and a few politically connected farmers. Our farmers can switch to other crops.

        1. Sell Mortimer! Sell!

    2. but as soon as he signed it the apocalypse would be upon us and it would have to be restored

      1. True fact: In the original Greek, “apocalypse” means “midterms.”

      2. Apocalypse? Didn’t the X-Men already beat him?

      3. Apocalypse? Didn’t the X-Men already beat him?

    3. That’s the problem with “emergency” measures. Once you say you can do something in an emergency, everything gradually becomes an emergency.

  3. But elimination of these minor reforms would confirm almost all of what critics of both Washington lawmakers and farm subsidies have long contended: they are [bad].

    Wash. lawmakers & farm subsidies?
    Critics of them?
    These minor reforms?

    1. “They”?

      Space aliens.
      Santa Claus.
      Vendors of three-cornered tin-foil hats.
      Florinated waters.
      The Illuminaughties.
      And last but not least…
      My edible undies!

      1. Hitlers?

        1. Just remember, Hitler doesn’t wear hats.

  4. Farming is not like any other industry. Not only do you need raw materials like seeds, water, and tractors. You need luck that your plants will grow and survive until harvesting.

    With that being said, the USA is in a great position to dramatically shift its farming policy to free market and let farmers survive on their skills or go bankrupt. Additionally, food prices should reflect actual costs of farmers and what the market will bare. Let farmers work out what foods they should grow and buy the missing desired crops from other countries just like we buy South American summer crops during American winters.

    It would result in a boom time for farmers in the USA and around the World.

    1. This is why farmers are socialists at heart. Which is fine at the local level where they can keep an eye on their own Co ops.

      And there is actually a national security angle to being sure you can grow enough food to feed your own people.

      But that isn’t the same as trying to preserve a mythical family farm culture.

      We don’t really expect someone to decline $25k/year in farm subsidies, do we?

      We just shouldn’t let her vote on the issue.

      1. The problem is not that farmers are basically socialist at heart, it it that politicians are basically socialist at heart. Politicians are not your run of the mill socialist though, they are the elitist socialist like Stalin, Moa, and Fidel. They will decide what is good for you, and who gets what all the while making sure they remain the greatest beneficiary of any policy and remain at the top.

        1. Yep. For an example, look at the Fanjul family in Wikipedia. They’re billionaires, where the government allows them (but not many others) to grow sugar in the US, and the government also protects them with high tariffs. Meanwhile Oreo manufacturing moved out of the US, partly because they can bake Oreos at much lower costs where US sugar subsidies don’t exist (i.e. outside the US). And you can also see the Fanjul’s huge political donations at That’s the immoral game: buy favors from politicians to restrict your competition, so you can get rich. And the immorality mostly resides in the politicians selling the favors.

      2. We have ag subsidies in part because it’s to politicians’ advantage that food supplies be stable and plentiful and grocery prices be relatively low and stable.

        While both supporters and critics of ag subsidies like to characterrize them as “welfare for farmers”, such subsidies are not based on any kind of “need” of the recipients. US ag subsidies have pretty much always been based on acreage or some other measure of productive capacity, so larger producers will naturally receive larger dollar amounts.While there is a lot to criticize about the US ag subsidy regime,it serves no purpose whatever to mischaracterize it.

        Caps on subsidy payment dollar amounts just serve to incentivize grown men to form various kinds of partnerships with their minor grandchildren.

    2. According to you, *no industry* is like other industries and so they all need government protection lest it take 30 decades to rebuild them from scratch in case of a war with China.

      We are *safer* from the consequences of war and natural disaster – or even from plain old ‘bad luck’ – by having our food supply globalized. Local disruptions do not cause famines because if supply of something from one disaster-stricken area is stopped, we just get it (or a substitute) from some other part of the world that is not.

      And, frankly, this also applies even to ‘strategic’ industries like steel production.

  5. I had a friend in college with a relatively wealthy family. His aunt and uncle were the most wealthy and owned a large amount of land for ranching in Texas. They would take government program-preferred cattle and just keep them, breeding some but mostly just keeping them around. They received massive tax breaks per head and would switch to whatever variety they could negotiate the best breaks for. Their careers were not related to ranching; they just had these cattle as a tax break.

    1. The problem here is that cattle tax breaks should only be used to offset taxes due from running a cattle business. If they get to offset “other” income/revenue from unrelated activities, that is a bad flaw (or feature) in that tax law.

    2. I wonder if my city neighbors would mind if I kept a cow in the backyard and called my 1/16th acre yard a “ranch” for the purposes of farm subsidies?

  6. Farm subsidies are actually good. My tobacconist explained it to me. Also despite conventional wisdom, big subsidies are far better than small ones. Why? Because it’s perfectly obvious if you’ve ever taken Econ 101 you idiot.

    1. “Regulatory capture”. “Concentrated benefits, diffuse costs” of special interests. It is eminently Google-able. But try being a libertarian geek and explaining just the BAREST basics to a proggie, and all they can think is, “But the feelz!! What about the children? I am FAR more compassionate that all these NAZI-like libertarians and conservatives”!

  7. Some links:
    Israel’s Attack on the USS Liberty: A Half Century Later, Still No Justice
    Congressional Candidate In Virginia Admits He’s A Pedophile
    The latter link is proof that all Libertarians are not only autistic sperglords but pedophiles and misogynists too.

      1. Whoa, that seriously fucked up! Did some anti-libertarians pay him to call himself libertarian?

        Inquiring minds want to know!!!

        1. He was a member of the Virginia’s LP.

          “Nathan Larson does not have and will never receive the Libertarian Party nomination,” states LPVA Chair, Bo Brown. “He espouses many archaic and dark ideas that fly in the face of libertarian philosophy. The Libertarian Party believes in equal rights for all people. No matter how he attempts to rationalize his opinions, they are far outside the realm of the Libertarian Party Platform. If he persists in his campaign for office, he will find that his ideas and previous writings are considered repugnant to the people of Virginia and rightfully so.”

          He’s even crazier than what that HuffPo link details.

          In 2008, Larson sent a letter to the Secret Service in which he threatened to kill either George W. Bush or Barack Obama, according to The Washington Post. The following year, he pleaded guilty to threatening to kill a president and served 16 months in federal prison.

          The dude is fucked. According to his manifesto that I scanned, he ostensibly believes in some libertarian ideas, but then goes on believing that Adolf was a hero of sorts, that women should be owned by their fathers and (later) husbands, and has a boner for race. So a /pol/fag, basically.

          1. Yeah, if he’s exalting old Adolph, he’s hardly a libertarian.

  8. So it’s about 600 million a year. That’s about 10 seconds of government spending.

  9. Subsidies pervert the market. Why should I get $6500 tax credit to put solar panels on my house? Oh well! Thank you America for making it affordable. I’m a winner, and y’all are losers.

    1. We are patiently waiting for your cut rate solar panels to begin leaking who knows what kinds of chemicals all over your roof. We will pop popcorn and stand outside and laugh as your home dissolves.

  10. Everything negative this article says about farm subsudies is probably true, but good luck eliminating it. Irrational support of farming goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who had a pash for farmers I’ve never really understood.

  11. These just aren’t Reason’s kind of billionaires.

  12. No subsidies! Who needs food anyway?

  13. Amazing !

  14. “Typically, subsidies have benefited wealthy, larger farmers who farm just a handful of crops and who should not?and, flatly, do not?need them to succeed,”

    There’s a principled libertarian for you: “these subsidies would be great if only they went to other people”. /sarc

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