Broken farm subsidy system favors the wealthiest

Broken farm subsidy system favors the wealthiest

The farm bill is headed to conference. A bevy of legislators, tapped to represent their respective districts, committees, and ideologies, will decide on the immediate future of America’s farm and food policy. And while this debate will track nearly every aspect of our food system, from farmer and consumer safety nets to conservation and energy programs, there is at least one small provision that all Americans can support: subsidy payment limitations.

For years, Congress has debated the merits of limiting subsidy payments to those most in need. Politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that farm payments are necessary to aid family farmers in times of financial strain, but such support is not open-ended, and indeed, it should be limited.


Payment limitations are simple, yet powerful, tools that ensure federal commodity payments are directed to farmers that are actively participating in both the labor and risk of a farm operation. That means non-farming family members can’t collect a check just because they are related to someone who farms. It also means subsidy payments are capped at meaningful levels to ensure benefits are directed at those in need. 


Payment limits are also timely and urgent. We’re in an era of agriculture in the U.S. that is marked by extreme consolidation, both of the businesses that work with farmers as well as of the farms themselves. Thirty-six percent of all cropland is held by farms with at least 2,000 acres, up from just 15 percent in 1987.

Prolonged periods of low prices have driven family farmers out of business, resulting in fewer and fewer farmers on more and more land. This trend is ultimately harmful for diversity in agriculture, our nation’s food security, and the social and economic well-being of rural America. And it is exacerbated by both safety net program abuse and disproportionate payments to the largest and wealthiest farmers that need them the least.

Current law needs to prevent excessive farm payments. The Government Accountability Office released a report in May that showed the top 10 farm operations received an average of $1.34 million in payments and the top 50 received an average of $884,000, while the bulk of farm safety net payments were substantially lower, ranging from $15,000 to $56,000. These exorbitant payments erode the public’s trust, cost the government resources that should be spent elsewhere, and provide certain farms significant advantages over others.

Commonsense payment limits were in place for decades, yet in recent years those limits have been significantly loosened. As recently as 2014, both chambers of Congress passed identical payment limitations provisions, yet the language was struck prior to final passage.

This year, the U.S. Senate passed the most bipartisan farm bill in the chamber’s history — a bill that will help farmers cope with the current five-year, 50 percent decline in net farm income. And chief among the bill’s reforms is Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump mulling visit to ethanol refinery later this month: report Nursing home care: A growing crisis for an aging America  Senate chairman says bipartisan health care package coming Thursday MORE’s (R-Iowa) payment limitations. It limits payments to no more than $125,000 per farmer, or $250,000 for married couples. It is absolutely essential that American farmers have a strong safety net during tough times, but it must be structured in such a way to prevent abuse. Grassley’s payment limitations do just that.

Farmers want to see greater diversity in agriculture and a farm economy that does not needlessly force operations to get big or get out. There are many structural improvements that must be met to get there. But in the meantime, there are simple steps we can take to provide relief for small and medium-sized operations, as well as the taxpayer. We call on Congress to ensure that simple reforms capping federal payments are enacted in the final farm bill.

Roger Johnson is president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), a grassroots organization that represents nearly 200,000 family farmers, ranchers, fisherman and rural communities across the United States.