Don Curlee: Little opinion on farm subsidies in California
A farmer's attitude toward government crop subsidies is likely to be a reflection of the crops he grows and where he grows them. In California, he might not have an opinion at all.
Although government subsidies, or payments to farmers, seem to be more controversial each day, their influence on California agriculture and its enormous productivity has been slight.
Only a few crops have ever received subsidies, the Depression-era payments by the federal government designed to protect certain farmers from precipitous price fluctuations and maintain essential food production and a healthy agriculture in exceedingly tough times. Somehow they have lasted nearly 80 years.
Typical California crops of fruits, nuts, grapes and vegetables have never been favored by subsidies, and by only a few of the programs that originated as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Government favors to specialty-crop growers, mostly in California, have been a recent effort to share a bit of the largesse that Midwestern corn, wheat and soybean farmers and Southern sugar cane growers have enjoyed for eight decades.
In the 1930s, California farmers discovered cotton and its attendant support payments from the federal government. Those payments, the tenacity of growers and ample water supplies allowed development of large acreages, particularly on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Much of that land has been converted to a dozen other crops through the years.
One of the crops most intricately intertwined with California's agricultural history is citrus, which was going strong particularly in Southern California long before Roosevelt was elected. Its growth and prosperity have continued.
Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, an association of citrus growers, recently expressed his concern about subsidies, suggesting that substantial changes should be made in these government payout programs. He does not suggest they should be expanded to include oranges or other citrus fruits.
His vantage point, like many California growers, is enhanced because nobody among his constituency receives direct crop payments from the feds. Credit him and others who have a similar viewpoint with a desire to get government spending under control.
While he acknowledges the federal benefits that help protect against invasive pests and disease, provide insurance against crop failures (such as freezes), and proclaim to over come artificial trade barriers, he insists that the existing forms of direct payments to farmers require re-evaluation.
Another voice calling for reduced funding for government programs is that of Vince Smith of the American Enterprise Institute. In a recent article in Capital Press, an Oregon-based farm weekly, he recommends eliminating commodity programs, crop insurance, disaster aid and assistance directed to the cotton, sugar and dairy industries.
Smith said more money is spent on fewer people in the farm program than virtually any other government program. "If you send money to the farm sector, do (it) so much more effectively," he said. The AEI believes that the current policy of supporting those growing corn for ethanol production is an expensive way to meet the stated goals.
Politicians bent on reducing spending ought to take a hard look at the subsidy and agricultural benefit programs. Some of the benefits, such as food stamps and school lunches range far beyond the farm gate, even though they are channeled through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In the process, they might want to talk to a California farmer or two, those who have never received or wanted a dime from the federal government. But finding a California farmer with a strong opinion pro or con might not be that easy.
CONTACT Don Curlee at email@example.com