When I started poking into Congress' debate on the farm bill, I recalled a conversation I had with some West Texas farmers several years ago. They grew cotton and peanuts, and it struck me that they didn't embody the big agribusinesses many urban Americans envision when we think of Washington subsidizing farmers.
These guys had mud-caked boots, sunburned cheeks and a quiet humility. They were just trying to pay their loans, afford enough water and fuel to grow their crops and make a living.
As they searched for moneymakers, they also rotated crops like Jerry Jones changes out Dallas Cowboys. They got help from Washington if their crops didn't produce a sufficient yield, but they were far from big conglomerates soaking the government.
It had been years, but I picked up the phone last week to see what they and their friends on the dusty plains of the Panhandle thought about the latest goings-on in Washington. Two points stood out:
They again made the case for why farmers like them need Washington's help. Darrell Barron, a cotton farmer in Plains, says he could go out of business without subsidies. Yes, he acknowledged, critics may tell him, "That's life," but those critics and everyone else will pay more for food and fiber if people like him go under.
Gary Walker, a former Republican state representative in Plains, emphasized that banks would start calling in loans without some kind of subsidy for local farmers. And if that happens, he stressed, it's unlikely anyone would farm the land.
I have mixed feelings about this. Some farmers certainly would go out of business without Washington's help, and, yes, the rest of us could suffer because we depend upon their crops for food and clothes. A homegrown food supply, even a limited one, is in our national interest.
Yet it makes no sense to keep subsidizing farmers who make $1 million or more a year after expenses and deductions. The farm bill the House passed Friday allows farmers at that level to keep receiving subsidies, and that's insane. It's also the kind of practice that makes taxpayers so furious that someday they will overcome the farm lobby and strip away subsidies for all farmers, including the Darrell Barrons.
The answer lies in the second point I heard. The folks I spoke with acknowledged that West Texas farmers aren't wedded to growing cotton, one of the five crops the federal government most subsidizes through its direct payment program.
Barron, in fact, told me he'd prefer to grow grass for grazing or hunting operations. It would be cheaper, and it would draw down less of the Ogallala Aquifer, which is getting in short supply in his part of the Panhandle. By giving farmers like him a subsidy to grow grass, Washington also would give them an incentive to put less pressure on water resources.
So, here's the answer: Democrat Ron Kind and Republican Jeff Flake introduced an amendment last week in the House that would cap subsidy eligibility to farmers with incomes of $250,000 or less, after expenses and deductions. The amendment also would have taken $12 billion out of the direct payment program for crops like cotton and wheat and put it in land conservation, food banks and deficit reduction.
The Kind-Flake proposal went down in the House because the Democratic machine opposed it, but it makes imminent financial and environmental sense. And not just for Texas.
An environmentalist I spoke with recently explained how farmers in eastern Colorado are growing corn like there's no tomorrow. They get great subsidies to do so because Congress has bought into the idea that we should grow more corn to produce more ethanol. The problem is, corn demands more water than crops like milo, and the increased production is drawing down the water table in that part of Colorado.
Despite the House vote on Kind-Flake, there's no reason a Republican like Dick Lugar couldn't push a similar amendment in the Senate. He's equally interested in overhauling American farm policies. And we all could benefit.
Limiting subsidies to those who need them - and encouraging more land conservation - can protect our food supply, improve our land and help those farmers who actually deserve it.