Monday, March 07, 2005

Farm subsidy cuts may destabilize small farms' niche

In today's NYTimes, Bruce Gardner, a former president of the American Agricultural Economics Association and the USDA's Chief Economist under President George HW Bush, offers his take on weak logic in the proposals to cut farm subsidies:
We have 2.1 million [farms], and the rate of decline has slowed to a trickle, with today's total essentially the same as that of 1990.
If large farms produce less of the bulk program crops that are subject to the limits (cotton and rice are the main ones affected), they will produce something else on their land, and that something else may well be the high-value crops that are more prevalent on today's small farms than on large ones.
Good points (and his analysis of the 2002 Farm bill is also an interesting read). There is definitely a stable dynamic that has developed over the years, with industrial farms producing huge quantities of low-margin cash crops and smaller farms filling in the blanks (though not always with high profit items, as he implies). However, for argument's sake, an interrelated reason that some crops are so low-margin may be the soil/machine/labor techniques that developed specifically to mass produce these crops. So only time will tell if it becomes financially/structurally prudent for monocrop farms to reorient to new crops.

If fewer big farms produce corn, prices may rise and result in a reduction in the amount of high fructose corn syrup and other corn products that appear in our diet. Maybe there would be enough money in corn for small farms to grow genetically diverse varieties or even organic corn (which is also impossible to find). On the big farms side of the tracks, maybe farms operated by General Mills will start growing quinoa. Now there's a nutritional thought, however unlikely.


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