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Roll back fat farm subsidies

May 8, 2011
In The News

Wisconsin State Journal

How absurd have U.S. farm subsidies become?

Our federal government has paid $150 million since last summer to cotton growers in — get this — Brazil.

Why? Because the foreign payments allow our federal government to continue spending even more — nearly $900 million last year — on subsidies to cotton farmers here in the United States.

"That's what the farm bill is doing to us," U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., said Friday. "It's turning us all into pretzels and making the Congress look so fiscally foolish."

You see, Brazil was mad at the United States for its fat cotton subsidies to domestic growers. Brazil contended these payments allowed our nation to unfairly boost cotton exports. Brazil threatened to retaliate with tariffs against other American products if our domestic cotton subsidies continued.

So what did our leaders in Washington do? They simply extended American farm subsidies to South America so everyone — even growers in another hemisphere — could enjoy the largess.

Brazil now gets more than $12 million a month for its cotton industry, according to the Wall Street Journal, even though cotton prices are high.

Kind teamed with Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and others earlier this year to try to stop the Brazilian payments in the House. Significantly, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who heads the House Budget Committee, supported their effort. But lawmakers from cotton-producing states beat back reform.

Cotton isn't the only culprit. A slew of crops and agricultural products — some tied to Wisconsin's dairy industry — are eligible for federal financial support.

A safety net for farmers during bad times makes sense, given the volatility of markets. But farmers have been enjoying one of their best runs in years. Net farm income is projected to hit $95 billion this year — a 20 percent increase. And most of the direct payments from the federal government go to big operations, not small family farmers.

Kind and the rest of Wisconsin's congressional delegation should help roll back and cap direct payments farmers get for growing — or not growing — crops. They also should scrutinize disaster insurance that encourages farming marginal land because producers know they'll get checks even when drought or flood destroys their crops.

And it's time to reduce or drop tax incentives for ethanol.

Washington is finally getting serious about its soaring debt and annual budget deficits. Farm subsidies — which cost $16.3 billion in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available — should be on the table for savings.

Kind is a leading advocate for bipartisan reform, and he counts Ryan as a powerful ally in the Republican-run House.

Wasteful subsidies must give way to more cost-effective methods of protecting farmers and consumers from natural disasters and boom-and-bust cycles in food production.

America's Dairyland should be a powerful and unified voice in seeking serious subsidy reforms that help reduce our nation's frightening debt and chronic budget deficit.