Every five years, Congress rethinks its role in farming. Next week, the Senate debates a bill from its agriculture panel that perpetuates subsidies for a few crops and many well-off farmers. This time, however, it has a fresh choice.
Farming in the US is no longer simply a declining industry that needs a big federal prop-up in the name of "the family farm."
Many other worthwhile nonfarming interests have gained a stake over the years in how government influences the use of millions of farm acres and billions of taxpayer dollars.
Even born-in-the-cornsilk legislators who favor the current bill before the Senate (and a similar one passed by the House in July) have openly questioned the wisdom of traditional subsidies – $16 billion a year – but then they've vote for them anyway under pressure from well-funded farm lobbies.
Their questions start with recent revelations of the many rich farmers and corporations that receive the hefty subsidies.
They start with calls for other, often healthier foods, mainly fruits and vegetables, to also be supported – if there is to be federal support at all – and not just the current, main beneficiaries: corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans.
They start with growing evidence that corn ethanol is a net polluter of greenhouse gases and not worthy of massive subsidies.
They start with the need for better conservation of land, less pollution, and more opportunities for wildlife – which would mean no federal "disaster" support in drought-prone Plains states where commercial farming isn't viable.
They start with a rising public interest in growing and eating locally grown produce, especially if it's organic – and in reducing support for subsidized, highly processed foods.
They start with a US responsibility to trim its farm supports in order to push other nations to do the same and achieve a grand, new global trade pact.
To their credit, a few farmland senators have bucked the lobbyists and are proposing an overhaul of the federal role in farming.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey plan to introduce an alternative bill to the one recommended by the Senate Agriculture Committee. It provides a new type of safety net against the ups and downs of climate and markets, but it would eventually end the program that provides direct payments when prices are low to only a few types of farmers.
It would instead provide a type of insurance that would be available to many kinds of crops and would be based on crop revenues calculated on averages. It would end a system in which only about one-third of farmers receive subsidies – and of those, only the top one-fifth get most of the money. And it would end a system in which only seven states – Iowa, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Indiana, Minnesota, and Illinois – received more than half of all federal farm supports.
Under the Lugar-Lautenberg bill, more money would go to land conservation and a wider range of healthier foods, while saving the US budget about $3 billion a year.
While it may not be perfect, the bill can serve to push Congress out of its lock-step support of a system created in the Depression, and which needed a radical change soon after it. Now lawmakers have a chance to make up for lost opportunities.