Massive farm subsidy payments slow rural development in states

When you submit an opinion editorial for publication, you never get to choose the headline. Though I certainly can't complain about the headline that the Omaha World Herald chose to run above a piece written by Jon Bailey, Director of the Rural Research and Analysis Program here at the Center for Rural Affairs.

"Massive farm subsidy payments slow rural development in states" just about says it all. Nevertheless, anyone who didn't read further missed the best parts.

In a recent analysis, the Center for Rural Affairs found the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent five times as much in farm program payments to Nebraska’s 20 biggest farm subsidy recipients as it spent supporting rural development in the 20 Nebraska counties suffering the greatest population loss.

The 20 largest farm subsidy recipients received nearly $26 million in farm program payments over three years. Meanwhile, 20 counties with nearly 65,000 residents in 67 municipalities received only $4 million over a comparable period [snip]

Top farm program recipients received an average of nearly $1.3 million over three years while residents of the greatest depopulation counties received about $22 per person per year in federal rural development support. [snip]

The comparison is similar in Iowa. There the top 20 farm program recipients received over $24 million in three years, while nearly 316,000 residents in 185 municipalities in the 20 counties experiencing the greatest population decline received $13 million in rural development funding.

In other words, our federal tax dollars supported the 40 biggest farmers in Nebraska and Iowa at nearly three times the level we supported the rural development needs of over 380,000 residents in rural communities suffering the greatest economic and demographic distress.

Is it any wonder that we compelled to fight every day for a more just and equitable rural policy? Operators of some of the largest farms in the country are collecting federal government subsidy checks that run into the millions for each of them, leaving few resource for other rural priorities.

It's as if the mega-farmers hauled all of the corn to town and left us to glean the field in search of a few kernels here and there that we can use to fund vital rural development projects. Their semi-loads? They sold it and used the profits to buy out their neighbor.

It's no wonder that the largest, most aggressively expanding farms are getting bigger, while the number of businesses on main streets across rural America decline every year. Back to Jon Bailey:

Declining population is symptomatic of a spiral that begins with a troubled economy, more migration out of a community, economic and community institutional consolidation and eventually little in the way of economic opportunity for remaining residents.

The result of the spiral of depopulation is a lower tax base, leaving small towns hamstrung by an inability to replace or repair vital infrastructure – a key to keeping and attracting people and businesses. Recent events in New York and Minnesota demonstrate how fragile the nation’s core infrastructure is. It is no different in rural communities; aging infrastructure in nearly every community harms the quality of life of current residents and limits future development.

Often the only way to address this challenge is through federal programs. [snip]

Unfortunately, the version of the 2007 Farm Bill recently adopted by the House of Representatives will only exacerbate this problem by failing to adequately fund rural development and balance the needs to all aspects of rural communities. [snip]

As Congress completes the 2007 Farm Bill the central issue is: Should the federal government provide bigger subsidies to the nation’s biggest farms to drive their neighbors out of business? Or, should the Farm Bill focus on supporting family-scale agriculture and investing in the future of rural communities?

The answer will determine the future path of many rural communities – revitalization or deeper graves.

Read the full op-ed here, and find the more about the original report here.

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