The Land Stewardship Project recently published a three-part expose of the federal crop insurance program. The white papers are titled: “Crop Insurance-the Corporate Connection,” “Crop Insurance Ensures the Big Get Bigger” and “How Crop Insurance Hurts the Next Generation of Farmers.”
The final paper title provides the key to LSP’s concern. The introductory article says that concerns over the lack of available land for LSP’s highly regarded Farm Beginnings graduates drove their interest in investigation and reform. The papers are short, to the point and well written. They look well researched. They should be read by every farmer, especially those who actually buy the crop insurance, like me.
Though I knew or suspected much of what was in these papers, I admit to being shocked at several points. I did not know that besides the 60-plus percent of farmer premium shouldered by the taxpayer, we citizens are sponsoring a large part of the insurance companies’ administrative costs for the program. The amount approaches $2 billion for 2008 in the example given. One particularly disturbing graph shows that administrative costs charged to the government by the companies for the program more than doubled from 2004 to 2008, while the number of policies actually written shrank by nearly 2 percent.
These companies are huge Wall Street players, their names known by most of the public. And additionally we are told that the farms benefiting are identified only by policy number, not by name. The other information required to be published makes it quite possible to identify the largest players in any area though, and a quick comparison of the policy payouts with the conventional government payouts on the commodity program shows that most of the support going to agriculture is now in the form of crop insurance to a few very large crop farms.
This secrecy is pretty obviously intentional on the part of big ag’s representatives in Washington and it certainly is in keeping with recent trends. Like the Pentagon budget and the various spy agencies, big agriculture means to be free of prying public eyes. This was deliberate; the conventional farm groups have always been furious over the idea that the Environmental Working Group was publishing government subsidy amounts for every subsidy-receiving farm in the country. It is also just one more sign of how deep our political rot has gone. The spending of public money is properly always the public’s business, and any business that requires government assistance to declare a profit needs to consider itself to be in the public domain.
We know this damage. It is not news to us except in its details and particulars. We know it every time we hear of, or stand at, a land auction where acres are going at an insane price and try not to think of how impossible it would have been for us to start with that kind of land debt.
We see it every time we drive to town and see nothing but greybeards and high school kids there and sometimes not even the kids. We know it every time we go down the road we have driven all our lives and can see in our mind’s eye all the farm places that once put kids on that bus each morning, but now are no longer there.
Some of us remember the farming that took place then, the cooperation of dozens of manure spreaders to haul out each farm’s pack manure in the spring, the threshing rings, the neighbor visit to castrate or load pigs, the silo filling rings, the neighborhood dairy bull coming home a step at a time pulled by a rope attached to the nose ring behind the John Deere “B” in granny gear. And unfortunately, some of us remember the voice of the machine salesman telling us or our fathers that buying that combine meant we no longer had to put up with those balky stuck-in- the-past neighbors. So it was. So it has gone.
Wiser voices than this one have told us for a long time that the goal of government and the academic agriculture economists and other smart men has been to drive the people out of agriculture. It started, as far as I know, with the President’s Council of Economic Advisers telling us after WWII that there were too many people in agriculture and some of them needed to be forced out to move to the cities and labor in our industrial machines.
This is the nation’s real farm program and it has been in full force from that day 70 years ago to this. Crop insurance is the latest tool. It is a handout from the public treasury every bit as much as the conventional commodity payments and every bit as vulnerable to fraud and abuse. Through the ruse of funneling the money through a “private” business such as a huge insurance company, the Congress has attempted to shroud it in secrecy and remove it from the public conversation about agriculture.
But the situation has changed. The argument that the farm population could be reduced with people replaced by machines and that the surplus people were needed in the factories was always a pretty degenerate view of the function of the economy in human life, but at the outset it was at least plausible on the surface. Now, when we have so few people on the farms that we cannot do our own barn work and stoop labor coupled with people in the cities who cannot find any work and an industrial establishment with its work being steadily sold out overseas, it makes no sense whatever.
LSP has three ideas for reform. The second one listed is that the program needs to support, not impede, a new generation of farmers. This is critical. This goes to the heart of what we think farming is about, and in more general terms to the way in which we view the economy and the people (all of us) impacted by it. Does the economy exist for the people or the people for the economy?
Those of us fortunate enough to have had some life experience with hogs, those excellent mirrors of human behavior, know something about the sow eating her own young. We have struggled with figuring out from time-to-time, when the vice pops up, what the problem is with the sow. Is she hungry, malnourished? Is she the victim of a bad diet or a bad environment that causes her to act that way? Is it the circumstance in some yet not understood way? Or is she just a bad actor that needs to go on the sausage truck?
This is a parable for our country today. Lack of meaningful and good or indeed any kind of work for far too many people, in some families for generations now with all the attendant and inevitable problems of decay, delinquency and policing. College outrageously overpriced for the young. No opportunity in industry. No affordable housing. No safety net. No attempt to work those dispossessed in the “Great Recession” of 2008 back into the working world. No support for them while they try on their own to climb. No requirement of a decent liveable wage. Virtually no controls on or discipline for Wall Street, our major predator. Our country is that sow devouring her own.
It is beyond question that powerful people and huge overwhelming institutions have pushed us into our current circumstance on the farms. Is that our “bad environment or circumstance not yet understood?” Because it is sure that we that are on the older side of agriculture today have witnessed and participated in some ways in the over-mechanization of agriculture, the extreme over-pricing of the land base and the emptying out of the countryside and the resulting huge pile of capital assets into very very few hands.
We need to tell our organizations and politicians to abolish crop insurance or modify it drastically. If it survives it needs to require strict conservation compliance. And it needs to tilt the table toward the young and the start-ups, not away from them. This generation carries some solutions to the problems my generation has created. We must let them in.
Western Minnesota farmer Jim VanDerPol is a former member of LSP’s board of directors and the author of Conversations with the Land. This commentary originally appeared in Graze Magazine, for which VanDerPol writes a regular column.