Kerry, Part Three: On Farmers and Rural Communities

Written by Current Events

I’ve been trying to get these out once a week, but this one took awhile, because Kerry’s “Helping Farmers and Rural Communities” position paper name-drops a lot of bills, and I had to check ‘em all out before I could understand it all. I’m hoping the rest will be easier going…only what, twenty weeks until Election Day? I need to get cracking if I’m going to look at Kerry and Bush.

So let’s get started. Kerry breaks it down into handy bullet points:

Support America’s Farmers. By this, Kerry means “subsidize America’s farmers,” although he doesn’t come out and say so. He says he “opposed the 1996 ‘Freedom to Farm’ act” and “supported improvements in the 2002 Farm Bill,” without going into any detail about the bills, which consist of, respectively, an effort to decouple farm subsidies from commodity prices and $45.1 billion in farm subsidies spread out over six years. That’s a lot to swallow, I know. I think it’s necessary to tackle these pieces of legislation one at a time.

The Freedom to Farm Act was a pet project of Newt Gingrich’s Congressional Army, intended to correct the hugely expensive Food Security Act of 1985, which continued every major subsidy program from the 1930s, along with increasing provisions for wildlife habitat and reining in overproduction. The way to cut costs, said Gingrich’s Army, was twofold: 1) lift planting and acreage restrictions, and 2) replace the existing subsidies, which were tied to commodity prices, with fixed payments that would decline over a period of seven years.

The thinking here was a weird blend of optimism and free-market lunacy. Commodity prices were high in the mid-90s, and USDA economists believed the foreign market for American food exports would only grow. Unfortunately, prices plummeted shortly after the Freedom to Farm bill was signed into law. A series of bumper crops meant tremendous overproduction, the bottom fell out of the market, and Washington stepped in, increasing subsidies by 50 percent in 1998 and doubling them again twice after that. In addition, Congress approved roughly $30 billion in “emergency” assistance. The Freedom to Farm Act became known as the “Freedom to Fail Act.”

The 2002 Farm Bill was seen as a return to a traditional subsidy system after the deregulation disaster of 1996. It includes price supports for just about every type of farm product: dairy, peanuts, apples, honey, dry peas and lentils, sugar, wool, and mohair. It repealed penalties on sugar producers who failed to repay government loans, and–in a provision sought by the Bush Administration–reinstated food-stamp benefits for legal immigrants.

Bush himself wasn’t wild about the bill, but he couldn’t avoid signing it into law without alienating the farm belt. He was basically faced with choosing between the bill he eventually signed, authored by the House, and a Senate version which included billions more in subsidies, tilted even more favorably toward large farmers.

Not that the bill Bush did sign has proven particularly friendly to small farmers. Ten percent of farmers take two-thirds of the subsides, as noted by Kerry in his paper. More on that later. For now, we must content ourselves with Kerry’s vaguely worded promises to “increase conservation funding” and “rural development” and raise “nutrition provisions.” He supports a “value-added development grant program.” He “has supported programs that create markets for farmers.” This is, for the most part, utter, meaningless nonsense. It’s worded to sound as benignly proactive as possible. Kerry knows most voters aren’t farmers, and they won’t be able to read this without their eyes glazing over. They’ll read the headline, “Support America’s Farmers,” and shrug: “Yeah, I like to eat.”

Maybe the biggest problem here is supra-national trade agreements such as NAFTA. Under the terms of these agreements, subsidies and tariffs are very often illegal, and can represent enormous penalties for the countries trying to impose them. This isn’t something often discussed in the press, mainly because it’s scary as hell, but it’s true. I can’t get into NAFTA here without going on for pages–just take my word for it, or do a Google search on “NAFTA Chapter 11.” Be prepared to drink yourself to sleep for a week or two. Anyway, the bottom line is that Kerry may not be able to deliver on his promises here, even as vague as they are, without getting the United States in trouble with the World Trade Organization. He knows this.

Encourage Renewable Energy. Way to climb out on that limb, Senator. Proposing federally funded R&D for renewable fuels is something even Bush knows to do. Specific information? Kerry has none. It’s just a sop for easily led environmentalists–we know this because, at other points in his papers, Kerry can be mind-numbingly specific. Here, he just tells us we need to reduce pollution and our dependence on foreign oil. Thanks for the tip.

Work for Fair Treatment of Family and Small Farms. Here, Kerry is basically patting himself on the back for his voting record in three areas. First, he reminds us that he “supported a ban on packer ownership of livestock,” which in ordinary English means he has voted to keep meatpacking and meatraising operations separate. The thinking here is that major packers (heh) will “drive small and family-owned producers out of business” if they are allowed to raise their own animals for slaughter. Second, he reminds us that he has supported “limits on subsidies that flow to the largest farming operations because currently just ten percent of farms receive two-thirds of payments and sixty percent of farms get no subsidies at all.” Third, he reminds us that he has “voted to limit the proliferation of animal confinements” because they “produce more pollution and put family operations at a disadvantage.”

I don’t know enough about the meat industry to tell you why we should care about small and family-owned meat producers. It seems to me that these producers typically serve niche clientele anyway (such as Whole Foods Markets or chi-chi restaurants in urban centers), and that’ll be enough to keep them in business regardless of what Foster Farms or Jenni-O does. What I can tell you is that Kerry says absolutely nada about the real problems in the cattle and meatpacking industries–insane tax breaks, worker’s comp violations, unsafe factories, and just basic rampant lawlessness wherever you look. He says nothing about turning the USDA into a real regulatory body. He just wants to look like he cares about the little guy.

Ensure Prompt and Fair Disaster Relief. If you are a farmer, and a natural disaster destroys your farm, John Kerry supports you getting federal money.

Strengthen the Rural Economy with Good Jobs at Good Wages. Here’s something that actually makes good sense, or at least seems to. Kerry advocates greater Small Business Administration presence in rural areas, he supports expanding Amtrak’s service to rural towns, and wants to increase levels of service to rural airports. He says he “has a plan to replace the nearly 3 million jobs lost during the Bush Administration,” presumably through “infrastructure and technology.” Then again, like everything else, this is ambiguous enough to mean just about anything. The SBA, for instance, gives most of its loans to franchise operations, so when Kerry talks about boosting small business assistance to rural areas, he could very well mean more fast food chains. Actually, the more I read this, the more I just want to shake him by the lapels while screaming “HOW CAN YOU TALK SO MUCH WITHOUT SAYING ANYTHING? JACKASS! JACKASS!”

Improve and Expand Rural Health Care. Kerry begins by telling us that “Americans in rural areas face special challenges when looking for quality health care,” which is funny, because I always thought the American ideal was the kindly old country doctor who came to your house and set your broken femur in your living room. I guess not. Anyway, Kerry says Medicare reimbursement rates are unfairly tilted toward urban hospitals and providers, and there aren’t enough nurses in rural areas. He reminds us that he “introduced and passed the Nurse Reinvestment Act.”

Bridge the Digital Divide. Kerry supports the E-Rate Program, which is “designed to help poorer school districts afford technology and Internet access.” Interestingly, the front page of e-ratecentral.com tells us that the latest E-Rate funding was just released on Tuesday. San Diego, that poorest and most rural of American communities, received $6.8 million of the $26 million total. I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of positive change this will mean for those hayseeds in La Jolla.

Support Rural Conservation Efforts. This bullet item begins with the sentence “John Kerry believes that good conservation practices are important to a new farm policy,” which sounds so much like the introduction to a last-second term paper that I couldn’t help but emit an anguished laugh. He promises “adequate funding”–whatever that is–for the Wetlands Reserve Program, part of the 2002 Farm Bill that provides “technical and financial support” to landowners in exchange for voluntary conservation efforts. Maybe it’s just four years of George W. Bush, but when anytime I hear “voluntary program,” I’m immediately suspicious. Program members can either volunteer for permanent or thirty-year easements on their property; the USDA pays for land restoration and pays the land owner annually for keeping the easement.

Most people’s first inclination is probably to think this program benefits mainly large landowners, and that’s correct. It isn’t as though you’re going to be able to apply for an easement in your backyard. Admirably, landowners whose three-year income exceeds $2.5 million are not eligible for these payments; on the other hand, I would be willing to bet that the combined three-year income of everyone reading this is less than $2.5 million.

Kerry also promises “adequate funding” for the Conservation Reserve Program, which gives landowners “annual rental payments for planting permanent vegetation on…idle, highly erodible farmland.” Same sort of deal here. This type of thing hearkens back to conservation’s roots as a gentleman’s pastime–guys like Teddy Roosevelt, or members of today’s fishermen’s societies. I don’t want to knock it too much, because the outcome is still worthwhile, but I do think it bears pointing out.

That’s all for now. Next time: Kerry’s plan for a response to the international AIDS crisis.