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Weeds: Turn off the farm payment tap

(I completed this Wednesday morning. The events of that afternoon give everything a “before and after” quality, so we delayed running it. Pictures from the Capitol were the type we have seen of places far away or long ago, places where society has broken down. To see them here is beyond disturbing.

Much will be written of that day. I wish I felt optimistic, but I don’t right now. There is no proof in history that a democracy such as ours is anything but fragile. The guard rails of an essential media, an independent judiciary, and basic standards of decency have all been damaged. There is work to be done. If today you hate someone, try to not.)

I like money as much as the next guy. Sometimes we haven’t had much, which is a problem. Other times we’ve had enough to pay the bills and have a little fun.

I like money, but maybe you should quit sending it to me. By “you” I mean the taxpayers of the United States. Really, stop for a while.

A second COVID relief bill passed recently after the usual White House histrionics we’ve come to expect. The bill does some helpful things to get us closer to the end of this pandemic. Like all compromises, it came out of the meatgrinder with a little of this and a little of that. A case can be made for much of it.

But wait. Tucked in among the 5,000 pages, there is another $5 billion for crop farmers. I say “another” because farmers received over $50 billion in 2020 in federal subsidies, fully one third of net farm income.

Some of that 50 billion was in response to a downward spike in commodity prices that followed the March quarantine. Some was additional balm for damage done by ongoing trade wars, trade wars that have done more damage to our country than any other.

I decided to list the payments we received last year for our little piece of Earth. These are typical of most farms, although the amounts vary greatly. When I started to assemble these, I was surprised how many there were. I had forgotten a couple.

I thought of showing the dollar amounts of my payments. Somewhere or another it is a public record. Suffice it to say I could buy a car. Maybe a truck. And if me-of-small-acres could buy a car, farmers with much larger acres could buy a house. And a garage and a car and a truck to park in it. Or maybe a farm.

January: A small crop insurance payment for the 2019 crop. I pay a premium for that insurance, but it is subsidized by the USDA. That’s always seemed a good use of public dollars, alleviating some risk from farming. But there should be limits to acres subsidized. It has facilitated large operations’ expansion beyond what they might have on their own.

February: The third payment from the Market Facilitation Program that began in 2019. This was from the administration without congressional approval. Ten per cent of recipients got two thirds of the money the administration gave to “our great farmers.” Again, some limits would have made sense.

May: The Paycheck Protection Program. This was money meant for small businesses to pay salaries. Farmers were allowed in, even if the employee we were paying was ourselves. I won’t have to pay that back. I also received an Economic Injury Disaster Loan that I will have to pay back. Darn.

May: The Economic Impact Payment, or Stimulus Payment. Sure. Why not?

June: The first part of our Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payment. That was funded in the CARES act that Congress passed.

August: The second part of CFAP.

October: The CFAP2 payment. While the House and Senate were debating another pandemic relief package, the White House was able to find $16 billion more in the seat cushions to send to farmers. There are cynics who look at the timing of this, noting that much of it went to presidential battleground states in the Midwest and see it as a bribe before the election. Such cynicism.

October: The regular Farm Program payment. These are the ARC and PLC programs that no one understands. ARC and PLC payments are apparently based on low prices of the previous year, so give them credit for trying to have a purpose.

These October payments came during harvest, when I cross paths with farmers at the elevator and parts store. We were asking each other with a confused look, “Did you get more money? What was that for?” This was coming as we were harvesting nice crops and prices were beginning to rise. Here’s where it started to get a little embarrassing.

December: the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program payment. You’re probably wondering when I had a wildfire or a hurricane. You think you would have heard about such an occurrence in western Brown County.

Turns out Congress meant to pay people who had suffered from those catastrophes. Then the USDA nosed in on that for planting problems in 2018 and 2019 caused by excessive rains. Here again we can thank an administration that loves farmers for pushing this “interpretation” of the bill.

These are the same farmers who, coincidentally, voted 80% for the president. Meanwhile, the same administration has made ongoing attempts to reduce funding for nutrition and school lunch programs. Beneficiaries of those programs didn’t vote 80% for the president.

Some of this $50 billion made sense. I continue to believe government spending on agriculture, with a focus on securing a safe food supply and protecting the environment, is a good use of tax dollars. But there aren’t excuses for the slipshod and slapdash ways it is often spent. And another $5 billion during a price rally when so many businesses are hurting? C’mon.

This is made more pertinent amid all the fear and dread about “socialism.” As for government reaching into the realm of private enterprise, there is no better example of socialism than the billions given to farmers.

In hoping to bring common sense to this, it doesn’t help that Collin Peterson was defeated for reelection to Congress from western Minnesota. Peterson knows more about farming than anyone in Congress; it’s not even close. It’s hard to understand why the conservative pro-life congressman wasn’t good enough for the conservative pro-life district he has represented for 30 years. Could be proof of a unique craziness in the air.

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