On Feast, Famine and Farm Bills…

In Exports, Farm Bill, Farming, Food Prices, General, Policy by Mark

Farming on any scale much larger than a backyard garden – even a big garden for that matter – is a business and as such it must turn a profit at the end of the day to survive, if not prosper. It doesn’t matter if you are growing corn or tomatoes. This may seem like clear logic, but in truth most urbanites don’t understand the complexities of how food is grown, processed, packaged, and transported to their door.

In our society we will spend ludicrous sums on money on things like cars, cell phones, or even a cup of trendy coffee, yet we continue to demand access to all the bounty Mother Nature has to offer at discount prices.

It is a modern miracle that the largest consumptive offenders on the planet – Americans – also have the cheapest food supply on terra firma. We spend less than 10% of our disposable income on actual food items compared to other developed nations that spend as much as 15% to 50% of what they earn to put food on the table.

There are numerous factors that make this access to cheap and abundant food possible including a wildly productive agricultural core that produces key crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans. These staple crops provide the very foundation of the “real” food pyramid. These are crops that we have learned to grow fairly predictably on a large scale even when Mother Nature hits us with challenging weather. In the worst-case scenario when weather, insects or disease reduces the size of these crops we have a certain amount in reserve.

However, with a growing emphasis on more fruits and vegetable in our diet, there are also those calling for more and more taxpayers dollars to shift from existing farm programs to encourage and expand farmers markets and produce production. Striking a reasonable balance won’t be easy but it will be critical.

While many produce items have a shelf life of weeks or months at best, corn, soybeans and wheat can be transported more readily and stored for years.  The authors of the original farm bill understood this and chose to put their emphasis and limited budget into programs that help growers of these keystone crops make it through tough times.

Times have changed and the farm bill is antiquated in many ways, but the importance of these key crops has not waned. The farm bill in the U.S. is not a perfect piece of legislation, few are that have become this big and cumbersome.

But today’s “farm bill” is a misnomer since the lion’s share of the expenditures go to social programs like women, infant and children, school lunches, food stamps and even forestry. Yet critics like to cultivate the illusion that it all goes to farmers.

As we continue to analyze and discuss these consumer support programs – yes, it is a consumer program that helps guarantees you the aforementioned cheap food over the long haul – it is important we do a little homework before making wholesale changes.

In the interim keep this in mind; if we stopped growing green beans or carrots tomorrow the world would not end. But if we see big reductions in crops like corn, soybeans or wheat the loss of essential oils, protein and other precious calories would change the food universe as you know it. Likely wouldn’t do our economy or our balance of trade much good either.