New York Times
By Robert B. Semple Jr.

Every five years or so, Congress promises a new, improved farm bill that will end unnecessary subsidies to big farmers, enhance the environment and actually do something to help small farmers and small towns. But what it usually does is find ways of disguising the old inequities, sending taxpayers dollars to wealthy farmers, accelerating the expansion of industrial farming, inflating land prices and further depopulating rural America.

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The new five-year farm bill that could hit the Senate floor as early as this week promises more of the same — excessively generous handouts, combined with a serious erosion of environmental protections. The nearly trillion-dollar bill would provide over 10 years roughly $140 billion in farm subsidies, $55 billion or so in conservation programs and more than $750 billion in food stamp aid.

The subsidies have always been controversial. A mix of direct payments, price supports, loans, subsidized insurance and disaster relief, these subsidies provided protection for millions of farmers in the New Deal and afterward against the vicissitudes of the weather and the market. But in recent years, they have mainly lined the pockets of big farmers of big row crops who don’t need help, while ignoring the little guys who do.

As numerous studies from the Environmental Working Group have shown, the story of modern agriculture in this country is a story of concentration, of huge subsidies flowing to relatively few farmers who grow a handful of row crops — corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice — in a dozen or so Midwestern and Southern states.

Because farm subsidies, old and new, have been tied to production, those cultivating the largest acreage get the biggest payouts. The top 20 percent of recipients from 1995 to 2010 got 90 percent of the subsidies; the bottom 80 percent just 10 percent. Many farmers — well over half the total, by some estimates — get no help at all.

The Senate bill leaves these basic contours unaltered. One positive change is the elimination of an indefensible program of “direct subsidies” that showered $5 billion a year on farmers in good times and bad. But big farmers won’t be worse off. The Senate Agriculture Committee redirected much of the savings into a different subsidy — crop insurance, which pays farmers if they have a loss in revenue or crop yield.

The existing crop insurance program, which pays on average 60 percent of the cost of insurance premiums for farmers, has risen from about $2.4 billion in 2001 to about $8.7 billion in 2011, and is expected to cost $9 billion annually in the coming years. The committee also added a second insurance-related program that could cost an additional $3 billion a year. The main beneficiaries of crop insurance will still be the big farmers, who take out the biggest policies.

Beyond enshrining that status quo, the bill seriously threatens the environment. Because the committee insisted on generous insurance subsidies, it did not meet the reductions required by the 2011 Budget Control Act even after cutting the direct payments. So it trimmed $6 billion over 10 years from environmental programs, chiefly the Conservation Reserve Program, which rewards farmers for converting erodible farmland to grass and other vegetation. However flawed, the old subsidy programs required farmers to act as responsible stewards of the land — promising, among other things, not to drain wetlands. The crop insurance subsidies impose no such obligations.

Enriched by high prices (at least for now), cosseted by inexpensive insurance, relieved of their environmental obligations, farmers could well be inclined to start planting from fence line to fence line. That would be a severe blow to the American landscape.

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