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Reality of farm subsidies: they're still needed

While prices have been high, farmers still need support
Carl Sampson, Capital Press 10/5/07

I was talking with an old friend the other day. Life is good, he said. He and his brother have raised corn, soybeans and hogs their whole lives on 1,000 acres of prime southern Minnesota farmland. Though prices have been good lately, that wasn't always the case. In the 1990s, hog prices plummeted to around $10 a hundredweight. Considering that $40 was about break-even, those were tough times. Now that hogs are over $60 and corn and soybean prices are up, life is indeed good, for him and many other U.S. farmers. The higher prices have even allowed him to build for the future. He's constructing a state-of-the-art 1,000-head hog confinement barn to supplement the ones he and his brother already have.

The other good news was that his son had signed up at a community college to study production agriculture. Between his son and his two nephews, who are also studying agriculture, they will see the family farm continue through the next generation.Their story, and the thousands of other stories like theirs, illustrate a bright future for U.S. agriculture.

As I listened to him, a thought came to me: Earl Blumenauer wouldn't approve. Blumenauer, a congressman from downtown Portland, has his own ideas about agriculture.

In a recent speech to the Portland City Club, Blumenauer extolls the virtues of farmers' markets, community supported agriculture and other direct-marketing. He is correct. For those farmers in the right places and who choose to, direct marketing can be a real boon. In Oregon, he estimates 1,000 farmers participate in more than 87 farmers' markets.

My question is: What about the 39,000 other farmers in Oregon?The theory that many more farmers can switch to direct marketing is flawed. In the U.S. today are 2.1 million farmers and ranchers. Some are perfect candidates for direct marketing, but some, like my friend in Minnesota, are not. If he and his neighbors switched to growing specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables, what would happen to the marketplace?

If Blumenauer is saying the current Farm Bill is imperfect and marketing, research and other types of assistance for specialty crops are appropriate, he's absolutely correct. If he is saying that specialty crops are the only types of crops that deserve attention in the new Farm Bill and that program crops should be tossed aside, he's wrong. Blumenauer criticizes subsidies when it comes to farming, but encourages subsidies for enterprises like the Portland mass transit system, which has received more than $1.5 billion from the federal government.

He says large-scale farmers do not need financial support. But in carrying out that theory, he could do real damage to many thousands of family farmers across the country.

Carl Sampson is managing editor of the Capital Press. E-mail: csampson@capitalpress.com.
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