Sometimes events like last week's attack can initiate unimagined change. Crisis can sometimes provide the political license to make changes to institutions that otherwise are nearly untouchable. For the past 50 years or so much of the traditional Washington farm lobby has defended expensive farm programs that ostensibly pay farmers to produce no matter the market. They've argued the enormous flow of money to a relative handful of farmers, producing a handful of crops was necessary to maintain export share and the nation's food infrastructure. Critics have argued the policy has helped to de-populate Rural America and degraded the rural environment. This week the administration was in apparent agreement, and began to unveil a view of farm policy that is a dramatic departure from what the country has experienced the past 50 years.
The changes, already in the offing, were unveiled against the backdrop of a worsening economy and the administration's announced intention for a protracted war on terrorism. In a 120-pade report, the White House said federal farm subsidies are causing "unintended and unwanted consequences" by spurring overproduction of crops ... and driving up cash rents for farmland. Though short on specifics, the report seemed to criticize the distribution of farm subsidies. It noted the nation's 175-thousand largest farms had an average household income of more than 135-thousand dollars. "We have tremendous change sweeping throughout this industry," said Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, "and we have to pause and take stock of our new operating environment." At a midweek news conference, Veneman deflected questions about Congressional proposals for the next farm bill. She said the administration's report, which reportedly was personally revised and approved by the president, was merely an assessment of existing programs. Among the report's recommendations: --The government should help farmers and ranchers when unexpected events beyond their control occur, without causing producers to become dependent on federal support. --Congress should pay farmers who take certain conservation measures, such as controlling manure and reducing soil erosion. --And, more money should be made available for programs to prevent food-borne illnesses and protect crops and livestock from pests. Those suggestions would seem to align the White House more with the thinking of the Democrat-controlled Senate Agriculture Committee, which is yet to draft farm bill legislation, than the Republican-controlled House. There, lawmakers have passed a bill that would cost nearly $170 billion dollars over 10 years ... and would expand subsidy programs for grain and cotton farmers.