There is plenty of talk about the development of alternative crops like fashion hemp or neutraceuticals. But most of the nation's farms remain devoted to the production of a relative handful of crops. Part of the reason for that is the fact those crops are the staples of both food and industrial production. But a more significant reason may be decades of evolving government policy that has subsidized those crops.
There have been attempts to curb the subsidies, and in some cases government programs have been eliminated. But this week the Senate endorsed a measure that effectively resurrects dormant programs and injects more dollars into favored sectors.
Its critics said the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 is expensive and caters to the special interests of the nation's largest producers and corporate agribusiness.
Its supporters said, "Yeah, well…" and then secured passage of the new farm bill in the Senate by a vote of 64 to 35.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa: "I'll be the first to admit, Mr. President, that this conference report is not any one person's idea of perfection. It is, however, a very good bill."
Especially for commodity producers. Of the $51 billion in targeted increased spending over the next six years, nearly 70 percent of the taxpayer outlay goes to commodities. Crop and dairy subsidy spending will jump by 67 percent. Spending on soil, water and land conservation will rise by 80 percent. The bill, which President Bush has said he will sign, also revives spending for honey, wool and mohair … and authorizes new programs for milk, lentils and even chickpeas
Sen. Paul Wellstone: "An increase of net farm income averaging $4.5 billion a year for the nation? You better believe I support it. It's a darn sight better than Freedom to Fail…"
The new farm bill is a retreat from the free market reforms of the 1996 farm law, commonly known as Freedom to Farm. Critics had derided the law as Freedom to Fail, claiming it had led to repeated multi-billion dollar government bailouts for farmers after commodity prices plunged in 1998.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming: "The U.S. Senate is unconcerned about the impacts of market manipulation…"
But opponents of the new farm bill criticized it for its lack of reform and its mounting expense. Economic studies of the bill indicate it's unlikely to spur an increase in commodity prices because there are no controls over production.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana: "The effect of this farm bill is almost inevitably vast oversupply and lower prices."