Subsidies are swell, but can we talk about fair prices?
By Danielle Endvick, WFU Communications Director
There’s a term swirling around the countryside these days: “Trump money.” It refers to the growing pile of subsidies hitting farm country during this – maybe not so coincidentally – election year. At a campaign rally in Wisconsin on Thursday, President Trump announced a new $13 billion federal aid package that will benefit farmers through another round of Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments. Coupled with this spring’s $16 billion relief package overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we’re entering record-breaking territory on farm subsidies. That’s a lot of dough. Don’t get me wrong, these payments are deeply appreciated. Here in America’s Heartland, we’re still reeling from the impacts of a years-long dairy crisis, extreme climate events like the recent crop-devastating derecho, and depressed commodity prices from the trade wars, not to mention pandemic-related market and supply chain disruptions. But there is also something that feels just a little bit dirty about 2020 farm subsidies tripling over past years, especially as the payouts coincide with President Trump’s efforts to lock in rural votership in key states like here in Wisconsin. My rural – and red – corner of the Badger State is hurting. Any aid for family farmers right now is sorely needed. But do you know what farm families need even more than these short-term payoffs? Long-term sustainability. In the grand scheme of things, subsidy checks are a drop in the bucket – one that’s likely to dry up next year when politicians are less focused on shoring up the support of rural voters. For decades, our nation has watched the demise of the family farm. Even billions in subsidies in recent years haven’t stemmed the loss of our dairy farms – Wisconsin lost 2,800 herds in the last five years alone. Nor do I anticipate the jump in subsidies will have much impact on truly hedging the losses our grain farmers have experienced from the past year’s trade wars. They scarcely put a dent in the losses that livestock farmers incurred as beef prices plummeted amid the pandemic -- even as supermarkets scrambled to keep meat freezers full with the increased demand.
Above: Though the dairy crisis has attracted national attention in recent years, that sector is not the only one hurting in farm country. Beef and grain farmers have also been struggling under poor prices that are not in line with the cost of production. (Photo by Danielle Endvick) What we need here in farm country are prices for our goods that are an accurate reflection of the cost of production. We need smart – and more stable – trade policy. We need to balance supply with demand. We need a fair share of the food dollar, enforcement of antitrust regulations, and a strong look at the consolidation in agriculture that is emptying the pockets of the family farmer, even as corporations pull in record profits. And we need leaders on the local, state, and national ballot who will stand up on these issues. This latest aid announcement follows on the heels of a USDA forecast that overall net farm income is on the rise, projected at $102.7 billion for 2020, the highest since 2014. But government aid would account for $37.2 billion of that, according to DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton. That’s roughly 36 percent of net farm income for producers. Meanwhile, farmers are making 4.9 percent less than they were a year ago, cutting into already razor-thin margins. In my father’s childhood, our country neighborhood was a patchwork of family farms. My grandfather’s generation was able to make a decent living, raise a large family off their farm income, and even invest in the farm operation through the years. But in the past 20 years, I’ve watched the demise of that life as the dairy crisis hit America’s Dairyland. When Dad bought our family farm in the early 1990s, there were nearly 30,000 dairy herds in the state; now that number hovers just over 7,000. We’re down to only two operating dairy farms in the neighborhood, and I worry over how long they’ll be able to hang on.
Above: The old stone dairy barn on Endvick's family farm is just one among more than a dozen that stand empty in her neighborhood, where only two operating dairy farms remain. (Photo by Danielle Endvick) My own family benefits from farm subsidies. I understand how direly needed any help is in these times when bank accounts are lean and debt loads are high. But I also know that a few dollars in the bank today won’t fix the broken system of tomorrow. Our growing reliance on farm subsidies is creating a culture of dependency that I daresay even represents the socialism so many conservative farmers rail against. Worse, it’s a system in which not all sizes or types of farms are being treated equally. Eighty percent of aid from the Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program was allocated to three commodities: beef, dairy, and corn, with some more diversified farm businesses being overlooked entirely. Additionally, the top 1 percent of recipients got more than 20 percent of the money, while the bottom 10 percent received just 0.26 percent. We as farmers and as voters have a decision to make about the future of our food and farms. We can continue down this path of a highly subsidized, increasingly consolidated agricultural system in which many farmers are themselves living in poverty, or we can look to – and demand our candidates do, as well – long-term solutions that address the growing monopolization, lack of fair prices, and other deep-seated structural issues that our farm families face. Because when election season is over, I fear the stream of subsidies will disappear, but rural America will still be facing down the challenges, long after the last cent of hush money has been spent. Danielle Endvick is a former dairy farmer’s daughter from Holcombe, Wisconsin. She now raises beef – and, occasionally, a little bit of hell – in her corner of Chippewa County. She is communications director for Wisconsin Farmers Union, a grassroots family farm organization that is committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities and all people through education, legislation, and cooperation.