Farm subsidy program needs to trim the fat

For a prime example of why the nation’s farm subsidy program needs a major overhaul, look no further than San Luis Obispo County.

Local growers raked in $125 million in subsidies over the past 15 years. Yet, as Tribune writer Jonah Owen Lamb recently reported, only a small minority of local farmers benefited: 10 percent received 68 percent of that revenue.

The subsidies took different forms. Some were disaster aid; other payments were for conserving environmentally sensitive land; and still others were direct payments to farmers who grow commodities such as wheat and barley.

Beyond that, we don’t know exactly why a relative handful of agriculturists received so many taxpayer dollars. That’s because the 2008 farm bill included a provision that kept most information secret. The Tribune was able to access only the names of the recipients and the amounts they were paid under the various farm subsidy programs. Lamb contacted several of the recipients to learn more, but only one responded.

We don’t mean to imply that the recipients weren’t following the rules or were somehow milking the system. The fact is, without more information, we just don’t know, and that doesn’t do much to bolster confidence in the program.

Nor is it reassuring that the Farm Service Agency — the federal program that administers most ag subsidies — field checks only a small percentage of claims.

Now consider that San Luis Obispo County is receiving just the tiniest sliver of the pie.

Nationwide, the federal government doled out nearly $262 billion in subsidies between 1995 and 2010, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental and consumer research organization. And once again, a small minority reaped most of those benefits. Consider these statistics: 62 percent of U.S. growers received no subsidies at all during the past 15 years. Of those who did, 10 percent collected 74 percent of all subsidies.

Who benefited most?

California ranked 10th in subsidies. The state’s share was nearly $10 billion, and while that’s not exactly chicken feed, consider that’s just 3.7 percent of the total that was distributed over the past 15 years.

Much bigger windfalls went to states like Texas ($24.4 billion), Iowa ($22.3 billion), and Illinois ($18.5 billion). Those are states where commodities such as corn, wheat and cotton are king.

And here’s why the system is so fundamentally unfair: Those crops are eligible for commodity subsidies, while California’s fruits and vegetables are not.

We recognize that the policy is rooted in history, and made sense when it was so vital that America have a stable supply of basic commodities. But times have changed, and while there have been some attempts at reforming farm subsidy policies, they have not gone nearly far enough.

Ironically, the government is now subsidizing crops like corn that have been linked to obesity — a national epidemic that is driving up health care costs — while freezing out healthy fruits and vegetables.

And it isn’t just the farmers themselves who are benefiting.

The Environmental Working Group reports that spouses and other relatives who have an ownership interest in a farm or even farm equipment can qualify for payments of as much as $40,000 per year. That’s outrageous.

It’s estimated that the government could save $5 billion annually by ending direct payments to growers. That’s a start. So is ending the secrecy surrounding this program.

We agree that farmers should have some measure of protection, particularly from disasters such as storms, drought and disease.

After all, food is one of the few true necessities we absolutely cannot live without, and there must be decent incentives to encourage agriculturists to stay in the business during down times. But the subsidies of the past that benefit a relatively small percentage of growers and agribusinesses have got to go.

The farm bill is written every five years; the current one expires in September. It’s time to demand that Congress cut the fat out of the bloated farm bill.