In My Opinion

Caroline Porter

Rich farmers lap up welfare

In the 1950's my husband owned a small grocery store in Alexis, Illinois, and because of the arrival of big supermarkets with all sorts of gimmicks, like green stamps, he, like so many neighborhood and small grocers, found himself facing business failure. While continuing to run his grocery store, he associated himself with Connecticut Mutual Life insurance company in Peoria and traveled there one day a week for three years for employment and training.

In 1956, the grocery store closed.

By the mid-1960's, fully supporting his wife and five children, he opened his own insurance agency in the basement of his home. The W. Dale Porter Insurance Agency grew to be one of the most successful independent agencies in the area, with business extending as far north as DeKalb and south as Mt. Sterling. The bulk of his business was covering farmer's lives, homes, equipment, businesses, crops.

He has been known to loudly announce in the restaurant in Alexis that he sure wished someone had subsidized him in the grocery business, like we do farmers, when he was on the brink of bankruptcy. Porter did what most of us have to do when we lose our jobs. We do something else. We get retrained, go back to school, change direction.

In the case of farmers, the Federal government devised subsidy programs during the Depression, which, according to James Krohe, Jr. in Illinois Issues magazine '' --encourages farmers to grow more of what the world already has too much of, wasting soil and energy in the process, helps big farms get bigger, inflates the cost of land --through higher supermarket prices or higher taxes -- the cost of food, and unfairly treats farmers as a privileged class.''

The 1996 ''Freedom to Farm'' bill was supposed to end subsidies, but it resulted in even higher subsidies dished out over the last five years, to the tune of $5.6 billion of taxpayer money into Illinois alone. Since subsidies are based on number of acres, the biggest land owners get the most money. Almost 60 percent of those dollars went to just 10 percent of Illinois' farmers or landowners. Actually, says Krohe, if subsidies were to end, the U.S. Treasury is not the only source of income for the dwindling number of farmers. Of 6,456 Illinois farmers surveyed by the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, 46 percent had incomes from non-farm businesses or full time jobs and nearly three of five farm spouses worked elsewhere. Even though the number of farmers has dwindled, the surplus of land is gobbled up by their more ambitious, efficient and better capitalized neighbors.

Krohe says that the farmer is ''squeezed by agribusiness giants at the input end of the business-the seed companies, the sellers of fertilizer and fuel, the machinery makers --while at the output end they are squeezed by giant grain dealers and food processors. In such a system,'' he says,'' the remedy for farmer's high costs and low prices is not subsidy but regulation.'' He says some economists have suggested that the Cargills and ADMs be regulated as public utilities, just like railroads were in the 19th century.

The truly disgusting part of this largely unsuccessful farm program for 80 years is the role of the national and Illinois Farm Bureau, who are involved and align themselves with the big agri businesses, including those of oil and fuel, while touting their support of the small farmer. Some agricultural cooperatives with direct ties to the bureau, for example, run large live-stock operations in Illinois. A hair-raising story in April, 2000, tells of a farm reporter from LaSalle, Illinois who was interviewed by CBS ''60 Minutes'' Mike Wallace, in a critical report about the Farm Bureau. The reporter had worked for WCMY radio in Ottawa for six years and was an outspoken critic of factory farms during his broadcasts. Four years ago he was met at the station at 5:30 am. by the station manager.

The reporter said, ''He told me that after reviewing tapes provided by the Farm Bureau, my services were no longer required at the station and I had 15 minutes to clear out my stuff. The one thing I really resented was that the Farm Bureau made calls to (other) radio stations in the area after I had been fired to keep me off the air.'' He went on to work at WLPO-AM in LaSalle.

Part of the murky agenda of the national Farm Bureau is to repeal the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guarantees equal voting rights to minorities. They lobby against gun control. They fought tooth and nail against passage of the the Equal Rights Amendment. They are in favor of off shore drilling. They helped defeat legislation that would have raised fuel efficiency in autos. They oppose all expansion of wilderness areas, while pushing for improved roads through national parks.

Despite the number of full-time farmers being a bit more than one million, there are 4.9 million members of the American Farm Bureau, many having joined to take advantage of low-cost auto, home, health or life insurance and have no connection to or interest in the issues of farming.

So what's the solution? One good farm program is the Conservation Reserve Program(CRP) which gives farmers rent for not planting crops on land that isn't much good for crops anyway, encourages conservation and makes the landscape more attractive. The Bush administration likes the concept. In Illinois, grasslands and certain species of birds are returning because of the program.

Obviously, the subsidizing of beans and corn just prolongs the demise of the small farmer, so many organizations are trying to convince farmers to raise something else, like tomatoes, fruits, tobacco or become ''paid landscape contractors'' to the public.

Krohe believes that if Congress left the market go free to ''do its worst,'' the industry would be seen as just that, with grain and livestock businesses becoming bigger and unregulated.

Legislators might finally feel obligated to the people instead of big business and regulate agriculture like any other big business. ''Pollution standards may be imposed, scenic buffers demanded, wild habitat insisted upon as a condition of farming permits, the way we demand new stoplights from subdivision developers.,'' predicts Krohe.

Illinois Senators Durbin and Fitzgerald appear to be on the same page in their concern for a system where most of the subsidies go to, according to Fitzgerald, ''a handful of very well heeled farmers.''

The Federal farm program is being discussed in Congress right now. Let's pay attention.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online February 27, 2002

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