Last weekend's Farm Aid concert in northern Virginia mixed a lot of good music with concern about the plight of many of America's family farmers.
The desire to help families struggling with a variety of problems - often worsened by drought and low commodity prices - is laudable. The simplistic solutions offered up at the concert and elsewhere are not.
Drought, insects, and blight aside, what most impacts American agriculture is a trend that began at the turn of the century. Mechanization, automation, hybrids, fertilizers, and pesticides continue to make American farmers the world's most productive. But farmers elsewhere are productive too, and subsidized by governments fighting the same trend. The result is often huge overproduction of staple crops worldwide, torpedoing prices.
As in other economic sectors, too- small, inefficient, or badly managed operations fall by the wayside. Add in unpredictable seasonal problems and the number of family farms continues its long downward slide.
Basic economics, not corporate farming or alleged monopolistic practices by food-processing companies, is the biggest challenge family farmers face. This inexorable process is not going to stop. No government program has halted it and none will.
That's why calls for a return to the New Deal policies of price supports and paying farmers not to plant are misguided. Paying to keep inefficient farms in production merely prolongs the difficulties at taxpayer expense. Even under the 1996 Republican "Freedom to Farm" Act (which provides price floors, loan guarantees, and transition payments), agriculture gets more government support than most other sectors of the economy.
Some family farms will adapt and succeed. Cooperatives and other market-oriented strategies (new crops, organic farming) will help others to prosper. But some won't, and the families involved may face heartbreak in the process.
Politics will dictate that these families get some government aid. Over the long term, however, governments would best serve them by spending that helps keep America's rural areas viable places to live and work.
This should include providing rural areas with adequate adult education to help members of farm families acquire the new skills that help them stay in farming or obtain other gainful employment. Governments should also act to ensure that rural students, farmers, and business people have access to the Internet and e-commerce opportunities through adequate telephone or cable connections.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society