Farm subsidies present paradox for Idaho conservatives

Ever since Bill Clinton and Congressional Republicans reformed welfare in the 1990s, there was no competition for the biggest government handout program, it was the farm bill. Yet this program, which funnels most of its dollars to middle income and rich farmland owners, is protected in Congress by conservative lawmakers including Idaho’s congressional delegation.

Congress is rewriting the bill again and its looking to expand the subsidies to more farmers. It remains a fascinating study of how political reality trumps ideology.

The Idaho Statesman and three other Idaho newspapers and three television stations did a series on Rural Idaho in 2001, the last time the bill was up for authorization. When we quoted House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, whose family has long been a recipient of farm subsidies, calling them “welfare,” many of his Republican allies gasped at his honest appraisal.

Federal farm price supports began in the 1920s and grew in the New Deal into one of the federal government’s most ambitious subsidy programs. It was designed to keep farm prices stable and food prices low.

It helped make the American agricultural system a model for the world and also kept the economy of rural America stable even as it played a smaller and smaller role in American life. The Farm Bill of 1985 changed the formula for subsidies so that truly small farmers no longer could survive without outside income. Eventually they faded into the landscape and were replaced in the farm workplace by nonvoting migrants.

Republicans in western and plains states have always supported farm programs, but until the 1990s, they always couched their support in the hope that farm programs eventually would be unnecessary, if the federal government would only develop trade and food policies that would allow farmers to thrive in the free market and cut regulation the subsidies would become unnecessary, they said..

They finally put the ideology into law in 1996 with the Freedom to Farm Act. The law increased farm subsidies and removed most of the requirements to limit what crops could be grown where. When world crop prices dove in the late 1990s, the program turned into an obvious failure.

Congress had to remove the phase-outs and essentially keep the dole coming, no matter if the land was farmed or not. In some states, such as Montana, half of all farm income came in the mail from the federal government to upper middle class farmers, many of whom had sold their equipment.

No longer was it seriously tied to price supports. And our generosity with farmers was actually hurting our ability to get international trade deals.

When the last farm bill was passed in 2001, few of the disparities were cured, although it did shift more of the money to conservation and environmental programs. This at least meant that some of the money was being spent on a public purpose.

In the end the bill cost a whopping $171 billion. Before it was even signed reluctantly by President Bush, Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives were bemoaning it as a farm welfare bill and trying to hang its passage on Farm State Democrats, such as Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

All of Idaho’s Republicans supported it. In fact, House Republicans from the South and the West forced Congress to approve the biggest subsidies for the richest farmers. They used the old rhetoric about trade policies and getting the government out of farming. But they knew it would be hard to repeat their budget-busting victory, so they authorized the program for 10 years instead of the usual five.

Farm prices have risen since then and the cost for the program has dropped. But the basic ideological problem for conservatives remains the same: a majority of subsidies go to farms with average incomes of $200,000 and owners with a net worth of almost $2 million.

That sounds high but a farm with a net worth of only 2 million these days, when houses are going for $400,000 and more in the Boise foothills, is not that big. Still it’s hard to argue these folks are needy.

Yet the Farm Bill offers the federal government a great opportunity to help make farmers partners in land and water conservation and wildlife preservation. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, who is on the Agriculture Committee, emphasizes these programs as he helps hammer out a new bill.

He’s also co-sponsor of a provision to expand the program with up to $2 billion for specialty crops like potatoes, cherries, table grapes, apples, carrots, onions and seed crops, all big in Idaho. Sen. Larry Craig also played a role in the expansion, though his staff won’t talk about it with the Idaho Statesman.

If you interested in the issue one of the most interesting website’s is a database developed by the Environmental Working Group . It tells you who’s getting farm subsidies and for what. You can type in a farmer and find out how much he’s getting.

Does it matter lately?

no, that's it...

Farm subs

Interesting article in Time mag. about the farm bill. If people really knew what food cost, subs included, they might call their representatives. I don't know why thought, they can't hear from the bottom of agri corruption's pocket.

When I get my $50 some food stamps...I do so...

and I look at the meat department, I swear quietly and find a cheap pizza and diet soda.

meat department

It's all about supply and demand. Nasty ranchers (read free range if we are talking about chickens) provide a quality product the consumer is willing to pay for. When they no longer pay the price it goes down.

What paradox?

It's just nomenclature:

It's "welfare" when unearned money is given to the lazy, po' folks.

Its "subsidies" (see how much nicer that sounds) when unearned money is given to the millionaires.

Sweet scam, huh?

You try it and...

save the populist, bleeding heart garbage for yourself.

640/mo really lets me own a car?

I'm on SSI/Disability, the other white meat.

Having heard this from people who lost their jobs 20 years ago and still whine on the internet about "welfare", I don't really grumble but instead go bsck to fixing something I may eventually sell or use to make my first video production, for I buy broken stuff cheap and fix it.

I already have a job. Do you?

PS I won't buy you beer.

Did you mean to reply

to MY post?

And could you please explain YOUR post?

You sigh about gazing longingly at the meat department, since you only get $50 a month in foodstamps. You're on welfare (honey, SSI is welfare, any way you look at it.) And yet apparently you approve of subsidies(welfare) for people worth 2 miliion, if your "populist, bleading heart garbage" is any indication. I'm having trouble figuring out what your point is.

Yes, I've been working full time since I was 17. I'm now 50. I don't do anything nearly as glamorous as buying broken cheap stuff and fixing it for resale, and I don't qualify for foodstamps either. Where can I get ME some of that cheap broken stuff to repair and resale, so I too can gaze longingly at the meat counter?

PS. I don't drink beer.

You don't, sir..

but to make a quote for John Wayne, "but it is my belief that you were indeed DRUNK when you produced those lines of fine writing".

SSI is something I PAID into just like you yourself when I was employed for several years and I will find it no less amusing when YOU YOURSELF begin drawing your retirement benefits.

How pensions and Social Security aren't all the same load of meaningless horsewallop in an argument, I cannot see and hence I am amazed, if not dully amused.

I don't gaze at the meat counter. I swear at ethanol floozies that got the feed that should have gone to our livestock, at milk and gas being the same price per gallon...

Oil drives our cars, CORN and GRAINS make everything else move.

I still spent 100-150 dollars beyond that to eat. 12 years ago I was employed fully and it's never been a barrel of fun at any age. You are just over 8 years older than I am. I would gather you live on more than 640 dollars a month, own a car, home etc.

What do you actually have left?

Why does anybody born before 1960 sit there skulking that anybody is PROUD to live on "WELFARE" anyway? It's not even the hundredth time either. I don't go and say it must have been something that you did in 1973. You went through the seventies in the same shape me and my parents did...

My god, you can read a book and not quote the verses like anybody else.

THE GLORY ISN'T THAT YOU LIVE ON NEXT TO NOTHING. It's that you can do things despite that.

Yeah, it's a brag, not really repenting. I spent about two days sleeping in my old '66 Pontiac with most of my possessions in the seats stacked to the headliner then living in my folks' garage for a couple months trying to get back to Ontario again and decided that was crap. That was 15 years ago and I didn't have anything worth speaking of except a belly. Maybe I'm proud that I'm not going to starve or freeze or get killed in some alley at 3 am even if there was a drive-by about two years ago and an infamous stabbing a few blocks off after that. I also don't live in an adult foster home. Somebody in Idaho gets my rent money...

I'm glad you have a job, etc. I'll do whatever I can period. I don't make a ton of anything selling's a HOBBY and those friends have less than I do. Don't forget I'm learning things that allow me to fix my own stuff, stuff I was damned lucky to find even at a thrift store. Stuff you have to LOOK FOR constantly.

You know, while it's true I haven't had a fulltime job since 1998, I mowed lawns and weeded from 1979 to 2003, mostly for elderly people (your age up) who really either didn't have a lot (one I worked for 12 years died of cancer) or then there was the frail couple that ate old Wheels On Meals, had ten cats that tore the old house up, never had kids and if I asked for 1 dollar raise in two years he looked at me like I was going to murder him for awhile. I did the best job I could, watered and weeded all for $7.50 when they died five years ago...

Left $400,000 to TVCC and the administration building is named for them now (go look--it's BARBER HALL).

The final straw was when somebody broke my trailer, stole my lawnmower and I figured out my benefits were subsidizing the business as I wasn't making enough to justify fixing my car to haul the mower. YAY.

I finally sold my last car in 2005. I found it paid all the debts off, even at 1800 dollars and basically at 2/3 of my income it was keeping me in debt.

There! Sound like I suck money like a Hoover now? Not likely. My parents have collapsed down four times in twenty years and I don't want them to be worse off then me or my siblings and me having to support them either.

We'll all just live in a yurt with a dirt floor and eat with chopsticks. I'd rather inherit the small house they now have someday, but right now I want them to see their seventies, not live in them.

Thanks for writing, by the way.


I have a brother who owns a farm in Montana, doesn't live there, but the welfare--oops, subsidy rolls in, he too, sold the farm equipment!


my relatives farm in Canyon County and we have ranchers, dairy owners and crop farmers heavily entrenched in 3 generations on both sides.

My relatives are in the BUY IDAHO ad. I am mighty proud of them.