Farm Subsidies

The Next Farm Bill Will Probably Stink Worse and Cost More

Asking America's agriculture industry to stand on its own two feet remains a third rail in American politics.


Renewal of the dreaded Farm Bill looms anew. "Even though there is still over a year remaining on the current Farm Bill, discussions have already been ongoing since earlier this year on developing the next Farm Bill," Kent Thiesse, a columnist with Farm Forum, wrote this week.

As I've detailed in my book Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable and in countless columns (including, for example, here), the Farm Bill is a recurring nightmare that's generally passed by Congress every five years. It was first introduced as a temporary measure nearly 90 years ago during the New Deal era—the same year of singer Willie Nelson's birth. Today, the overwhelming majority of costs come from directives to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide taxpayer funds to some American farmers and many low-income Americans.

While my writings on the Farm Bill generally focus on payments to farmers (including in this column), in the case of food and nutrition funding for low-income Americans, "[t]he government should do no more and no less than giving cash to those in need," I explained in 2018. "They're best positioned to determine their food needs and—objectively—are the only ones who know their food preferences and those of their families."

As for taxpayer payments to farmers, while the makeup of those payments has changed over the years, today, farm subsidies operate by allocating tens of billions of taxpayer dollars each year to pay for approximately two-thirds of an eligible farmer's crop insurance premium payments.

Now, Congress is gearing up to consider a new Farm Bill. "We only do a Farm Bill every five years, and that…. gives our producers the kind of predictability that they need to make decisions," Rep. Dusty Johnson (R–S.D.) told Forum News Service this week. "We don't want farm policy changing every election or every quarter. But it puts extra pressure on us to get it right."

When it comes to the Farm Bill, get it right they do not. Not once. Not ever

There are many reasons this Farm Bill will likely just be a bigger and smellier heaping of manure than the last one. Cost is one such reason. Though Democrats and Republicans in Congress always claim the next Farm Bill will be the one to save taxpayers money, that's never the case, I explain in my 2016 book. The falsehood that the Farm Bill will save money will no doubt be repeated this year.

Another shopworn Farm Bill myth is the notion that America's small farmers need and benefit from the bill. Nope. Rather, because farm subsidy handouts typically go to America's largest and wealthiest farms, they've helped promote consolidation and upsizing of America's farms. While I'd oppose farm subsidies with equal fervor if more, most, or all of them went to small farmers, the fact is nearly 7 in 10 American farms receive no subsidies. While it's great to know that the great majority of American farmers are still in business without receiving farm subsidies—which maybe suggests the big guys don't need subsidies, either—the massive influx of cash to a small number of big farmers widens the competitive gap between the bigger haves and smaller have-nots in American farming. 

There are other reasons to detest farm subsidies. As I also detail in my book, farm subsidies have had a profound negative impact on everything from Americans' diets to our waistlines and wallets and the environment.

It is no exaggeration to say that farm subsidies have been a disaster for America. Despite that fact, powerful Members of Congress and the big farming lobbies who back them make the continuation of farm subsidies (in the form of crop insurance) all but a certainty.

"Major U.S. agricultural production groups are pulling together their requests for the next farm bill… with crop insurance… on the top of their lists," The Pulse reported this month. "The really important thing to our members is to make sure that crop insurance survives the way it is," a top American Farm Bureau Federation official told Farm Week Now earlier this month. "Maybe we can improve it some, but the bumper sticker message on crop insurance is 'Do no harm.'" Elsewhere, a Montana Farm Bureau Federation official said the group's greatest priority for the upcoming Farm Bill would be "protecting risk management tools," or crop insurance payments. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–M.N.), who sits on the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee, assuaged these special interests' gratuitous concerns this week, suggesting the current pork-laden Farm Bill will form the basis of the next one.

Though most Democrats and Republicans in Congress vote in favor of the Farm Bill each cycle—hence why it generally becomes law—criticism of farm subsidies crosses partisan boundaries. You'll find Farm Bill critics everywhere, from the conservative Heritage Foundation to the (pro-Klobuchar) editorial board of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (which a decade ago dubbed subsidized crop insurance a "boondoggle [that] throw[s] money at farmers, whether they need it or not").

At a time of sky-high food costs, the Farm Bill should be a means to help Americans grow and buy more food for less money. But that would require the government to both regulate and spend less. Alas, given the fact the Farm Bill is, well, the Farm Bill, it instead helps Americans spend more money than we should to grow more food than we need.

There's nothing inherently strange or wrong about the fact many farmers want to insure their crops against loss. It may be a smart idea for farm owners to buy insurance. But that decision should be up to individual farmers, who should choose either to buy insurance with their own money or to operate at a higher risk. Forcing taxpayers to subsidize farmers' insurance makes no sense. Farm subsidies generally and subsidized crop insurance specifically constitute wasteful spending that should be abolished—entirely and immediately.