The expiring farm bill gives Congress a chance to do better.

Monday, January 8, 2007

THE LAST TIME Congress took a long look at America's wasteful system of agricultural subsidies, we had to endure bushels of shallow rhetoric about how billions in largess would save the great American family farm. With this hefty crop of disingenuous sentimentality and equally hefty lobbying efforts from powerful agricultural interests, the result was a federal giveaway that did more to hurt small farmers than it did to help them.

The law that authorizes a range of unnecessary and ill-targeted agriculture programs is set to expire in September. So expect fronts for agribusiness, rural banks and farm insurers (and the members of Congress who accept their campaign contributions) to try and sell the same line again this year: Extend the programs or nail the coffin shut on America's heartland. It's about time to nail the coffin on that tired line instead.

The Post's Gilbert M. Gaul, Sarah Cohen and Dan Morgan reported last month that federal agricultural payments are in fact fueling a rapid consolidation of American farms into enormous agribusinesses. Larger farms get much more government money, which they then use to buy up more land. This increases land prices, raising the financial barriers to starting a new farm and pressuring small farmers to leave the market. The mere fact of farm consolidation is not objectionable; indeed, many large farms are pioneering technological and procedural improvements that increase efficiency. But decisions about who should be farming what and where should be left to the marketplace; the government should not distort the market to push smaller competitors out, especially at the price of $15 billion in annual subsidies.

Congress should overhaul the federal farm subsidy system. But that will not come easily. Recent installments of The Post's investigative series on agricultural payouts detailed the influence the farm lobby exerts on federal legislators, who have added a series of expensive giveaways to existing programs and successfully legislated away meaningful competition in certain agricultural markets, such as that for milk.

There are some signs that the lobby is losing strength. Democratic presidential hopeful and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack will campaign for subsidy reform, and groups such as the Club for Growth plan to spend millions for the cause. Perhaps this time a more reasonable farm policy will emerge.

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