Review: Silvia Secchi on the Farm Bill:  Part 1: Synopsis

Introduction to the Series: A Teachable Moment

This is a review of a presentation by Dr. Silvia Secchi in a webinar of the Iowa Farmers Union on the parity farm programs (here: Upon hearing Dr. Secchi’s presentation, a number of farmers expressed concerns that she didn’t understand the issues, and I commented that her presentation surely contained at least “two dozen falsehoods.”

First:  “Review: Silvia Secchi on the Farm Bill: Part 1: Synopsis,” is a condensed version of the long 2nd paper, a quick overview. Less than 5 pages. (You’re here now.)

Second: “Review: Silvia Secchi on the Farm Bill:  Part 2: ‘2 Dozen Falsehoods?‘” is a lengthy rebuttal or response to 28 claims or statements that she made in her presentation. About 34 pages, including 15 data charts. More than 80 endnotes are posted separately as Part 3, below.

Third:  Silvia Secchi on the Farm Bill: Part 3:  Endnotes to Part 2

Fourth: “Silvia Secchi on the Farm Bill: Part 4:  Generalizations that Mystify,” is a fairly brief discussion of 8 generalizations that she made in her talk. While I see these as good and sometimes great generalizations, I see each one as misapplied, and generally more applicable to my rebuttal of her thesis than to her claims in support of it.  This mixture of common sense and false applications, I argue, mystifies us, blocking our progress on these important issues.

The reason I’ve gone into such great detail is that I see this as a teachable moment. Dr. Secchi’s views are widely held, and closely related to additional views that are also widely held. At the same time, the issues are extremely important, as they are the biggest issues of U.S. and global agriculture.

Dr. Secchi’s Core Anomaly

As I explain in great detail in Part 2, (the long paper with endnotes,) Dr. Secchi supports policy positions that most strongly work against her (progressive) values.  While I generally share most of her core values, I reject her core anomaly, and offer solutions that are more congruent with these values.

Two Dozen Falsehoods?”

Right after hearing her presentation to the Iowa Farmers Union, I commented below the video that there were probably at least two dozen falsehoods in it. In the long paper I identify the specific falsehoods and related matters that I see, 28 of them, and provide rebuttals to them. Here below I briefly describe each of these.

[1] Dr. Secchi suggested that we got rid of parity because it was a bad idea. I show that overwhelming evidence points the other way, that it was and is a great idea, and that Congress/Presidents reduced and ended it because of pressure from the agribusiness lobby, which has always opposed it.

[2] Dr. Secchi suggested that price and supply management works by the government buying up the excess to push up the price, such as of corn, which, of course, would not reduce the supply. I show that it works with price floors and by cutting acreage, and if that’s done correctly, the government rarely has to take temporary ownership of grain, and in that case, when they do, they’ll likely make a profit on it. 

[3] Dr. Secchi argued that, under parity programs, government “is in charge of stocks,” such as of grain, and that, “history proves” that oversupply is the result of the programs. I show that there was little oversupply during parity, that the problems occurred with the decline from parity and the ending of parity.

[4] Dr. Secchi argued that minimum price floor programs, (which are similar in principle to minimum wage floors,) cannot work if a country exports. I show that price floor/supply management programs did work as we exported, and that this is also supported by academics in a number of econometric studies.

[5] Dr. Secchi argued that the only way parity programs work with exports is if you lose money on exports with a two-tiered price system.” I show the evidence for how, though you export a smaller quality with these programs, you make more money on the exports.

[6] Dr. Secchi argued that the WTO would oppose what she imagines as a system of losing money on exports. I showed how WTO has never really opposed export dumping, and has never had a system for preventing it.

[7] Dr. Secchi argued that the programs can’t work because farmers will increase production with these programs, producing more because the higher prices, (which is a conservative, free market philosophy, assuming that supply and demand effectively self-correct, as in economic theory and economics textbooks). I show a list of reasons why that view is incorrect: that that philosophy fails for agriculture in the “aggregate,” (as in the real world,) for a variety of reasons that make it different from other industries; (that farmers have only so much land, and if they acquire more, others have less); that there is a huge factor of diminishing returns with over-fertilization; that the programs just cut back on supply however much more is needed on following any year of increased carryover (oversupply).

[8] Dr. Secchi argued that the programs also fail because of new technology that increases yields. I address that along with [7], showed how parity successfully handled the huge change from draft power to tractors, (which freed up tens of millions of acres from usage as draft power feeds [fuels]), showed how the extreme conditions of the Great Depression that radically altered supply and demand for farm equipment manufacturers was successfully addressed by supply management, showed also how the huge recent changes in technology in the auto industry did not at all eliminate their need for their supply management, which they see as essential, and in fact, all of this is all exactly why the programs are needed.

[9] Dr. Secchi argued that “at the end of the day, there was no supply reduction, but rather “a lot of surplus.” I show not only that that was false, as discussed above, but that here, and on other issues, she surely doesn’t know WHEN parity happened, and therefore was blaming parity for what happened during the time of decline from parity, and the time after the ending of parity, including times when Republican administrations mismanaged the programs. My answer outlines 5 different periods:

A. Before 1933, before the farm program.

B. Early farm bill years, pre-parity, 1933-1941.

C. The parity years, 1942-1952, (100% of parity or more every year for agriculture as a whole).

D. The Decline from Parity, 1953-1995, a time of (lower and lower price floors and inadequate acreage reductions).

E. The end of the remaining major programs, 

[10] Dr. Secchi claimed that “Parity pricing … really does nothing for the environment.”  I show why, in multiple ways, these programs have been the biggest thing in agricultural policy that has protected the environment during agricultural production, and how this has become so much more visible in hindsight. For example, it became visible after decades of reductions in farm prices, leading then to the subsidization of the loss of value-added livestock and poultry to CAFOs, leading then to the loss of the sustainable crops, the livestock crops like grass, hay and feedgrain nurse crops like oats.

[11] Dr. Secchi also claimed that “There’s also nothing for anti-trust, to reduce the power of the big agribusiness corporations,” in parity programs. I show how the parity programs made the biggest agribusiness corporations pay farmers $1.2 trillion more than they were paid over 13 years prior to the farm bill, (based upon averages per year). The higher prices, then, were a huge deterrent to CAFOs.  On the other hand, I show that the severe reduction and then ending of parity programs, (leading to multi-trillions of dollars of over all agribusiness subsidization below parity levels,) resulted in the taking away of livestock farming from diversified farmers, as a massive further subsidization of giant corporations.

[12] Dr. Secchi argued that we have CAFOs because we ignore the hidden costs. I show how, with parity, a variety of major hidden costs, (which she fails to mention, i.e. to farmers, to communities, to the economy,) are paid, by CAFOs, junk food makers, export dumpers, and others in the agribusiness input (sellers) and output (buyers) complex. This, of course, also includes hidden costs to the environment.

[13] Dr. Secchi argued that, “If we did not have oligolipsic power, CAFOs wouldn’t make sense,” which is another argument for standard antitrust laws and enforcement. I show that simply having smaller corporate sizes does nothing to reduce the massive subsidization, (i.e. cheap farm prices,) of CAFOs by farmers, since that is based on chronic market failure on both supply and demand sides.

[14] Dr. Secchi argued that farm subsidies, (seen as extra rewards,) are pushing up the price of land. I show how farmers have been paid less and less with subsidies, (due to the overlooked aspect of lowering and ending of minimum price floor programs,) resulting in much less net farm income (including subsidies) and much lower returns on equity and assets, (including subsidies). So the evidence doesn’t support her theory, (which is widely shared). I show, on the other hand, how, with this massive penalization of farmers through cheaper and cheaper farm prices, surviving farmers have increasingly had to get off farm jobs, greatly reducing the availability of their labor, while greatly increasing the role of capital in their operations. This in turn, I show, has enabled them to use their large off farm incomes for “tax loss farming,” leading then to both further capitalization, and the bidding up of land prices. (All from penalizing farmers.)

[15] Dr. Secchi then further argued that “That’s why a lot of young farmers are into CAFOs,… because you don’t need as much land.” I showed how young farmers are not “into CAFOs.”

[16] Dr. Secchi argued that “parity would do nothing for” the “transition to the next generation of farmers.” I showed how it’s the decline from parity that has been so devastating for young farmers, even when they come from established farms.

[17] Continuing re. “the next generation of farmers” Dr. Secchi further argued that “The way to break this link is to think of a subsidy system that is decoupled from production,” such as “a fixed payment per farm.” I show how her solution would maintain the cheapest of cheap farm prices for junk food, export dumping and CAFOs, which is how we lost our young farmers in the first place, as farms lost the livestock systems that favor young farmers. 

I also explain the theory of decoupling, how it came from agribusiness, and how it’s been a disastrous policy. I give a numerical example from 1980-2005 to show how the “fixed payment per farm” idea is absurd and much more unjust, (being based on misunderstandings of statistics, [where tiny acreages would get the same as full-time family-sized farms,] misunderstandings of the farm economy and misunderstandings of farm programs. I show how it would therefore be a kind of political suicide for people with progressive values. 

[18] Dr. Secchi argued that “Decoupling supports…. helps more small farmers.” I show that it continues the strategy that corporate leaders have used to get rid of them. I also explain the theory of decoupling, how it came from agribusiness, that how continues the strategy that corporate leaders have used to get rid of small farmers. I show how it’s been a disastrous policy, in all it’s versions, (both practically and politically).

[19] Dr. Secchi’s view is that, “If you have a fixed amount of support that doesn’t go away, regardless of what prices are. If you want, you sell to the open market. You do it, without subsidies.” I describe how, in the real world, this is an irrational, very expensive, and politically disastrous approach.

[20] Dr. Secchi claims that decoupling is “a policy that works regardless of market circumstances.” I show how, in truth, it’s a policy that almost always fails in real world markets, like a clock that has stopped.

[21] Dr. Secchi called for policies to “Make grazing more attractive, reward farmers who do that.” I show how trying to do that without adequate price floor programs is an extremely contradictory policy that is both expensive and doomed to fail.

[22] Dr. Secchi’s solution against CAFOs and monoculture was: “Don’t give subsidized crop insurance to corn and beans, subsidized crop insurance only for extended rotation.” “If you want to buy crop insurance, you buy crop insurance without subsidies.” I rebut this in multiple ways through my paper, (as described above,) even as I show how, with parity programs, farmers buy crop insurance without subsidies.

[23] Dr. Secchi argued that parity was chosen only for the Great Depression, but then “prices went up” and so “parity became less relevant.” She called for “a robust policy that works when prices are high, and when prices are low.” I show how prices did NOT go up over the next 7 decades, except for help from parity programs, (with fairly small exceptions,) how the reasons why parity is needed, (lack of price responsiveness on both supply and demand sides,) have continued, and how de-coupled programs are the worst we’ve ever had with regard to the issues of “when prices are high” vs. when prices are low, while parity programs have been, by far, the most successful programs to address this.

[24] Dr. Secchi suggested that farmers support systems of overproduction and the illusion that they would then “get paid more for it,” with reference to a statement identified with Earl Butz, (Nixons Secretary of Agriculture, i.e. “fencerow to fencerow,”) thus suggesting that farmers believed and followed Butz. I argued that, first, productivity is valued by farmers whether prices are high or low, second, I showed that most farmers have repeatedly supported adequate supply management, based on their understanding that oversupply leads to getting paid less, and third, I showed how farmers have vigorously rejected the myths of Earl Butz, (myths quickly proven wrong after the 1970s 2-year price spike, as Butz failed to adequately manage supply). (Of course, while rejecting supply management for farmers, [so that giant corporations can buy cheap and sell more products to farmers,] Butz supported supply management at Ralston Purina where I worked both before and after his time as Secretary of Agriclture. This has long been the standard, self-centered and hypocritical position of agribusiness.)

[25] In all of this, (and very specifically, near the end,) Dr. Secchi argued that supply management and parity programs were minor and irrelevant in significance in general, a waste of time and a diversion away from important issues like anti-trust, racial justice, and the challenges for small and beginning farmers. I showed how these core farm programs were the biggest, most important issues by far, no less relevant in 2nd or 3rd decade of the 21st century, and also much more powerful solutions with regard to antitrust, the environment, racial justice and small/beginning farmers than what others have proposed.

[26] Dr. Secchi expressed perplexity that she was viewed as being supportive of a conservative/agribusiness position like Farm Bureau and the Heritage Foundation. I showed how her positions are essentially the same as theirs with regard to the core economic issues, (and based upon the same false interpretation of the history farm program impacts,) while at the same time, her position was the opposite of Farm Bureau and others with regard to environmental regulations.

[27] Dr. Secchi made a side comment about the parity price of corn “at $12, $14 per bushel,” apparently to support her argument that the programs don’t work. Parity prices are quite high relative to most prices of recent decades, and this is a common criticism of parity. I provided a number of considerations for addressing this charge. I showed how parity prices for crops have risen more slowly than inflation, (with exceptions for a couple of highly inflationary periods specific to agriculture). I raised the question of how much social good we want from farmers in relation to costs, such as with regard to environmental considerations, (and how much do we want CAFOs and junk food makers to pay for their feed and food ingredients). I pointed out how a number of proposals, which may initially be more politically winnable (for replacing subsidies with better prices,) use lower price floor levels, and how the 1987 Family Farm Act started with lower price floors, to then gradually raise up to a final standard.

[28] When asked about reading recommendations, Dr. Secchi offered no suggestions other than to her own writing, which was not yet online, and without reference to where it would be. During her talk she offered no references to others who support for her views. In answering this, I showed the key online sources from a variety of organizations and academics. I also provided about 100 additional reference citations to support the specific points I made in answering these, “more than two dozen,” falsehoods.

1980: Culver Warns of Farm Crisis, Calls for Raising Price Floors


Sunday March 23, 1980. Manson — U.S. Senator John C. Culver, (D-Iowa) Sunday said the Federal Reserve Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture must act to assist farmers and small businesses in rural areas in light of the “devastating effects” high interest rates and low farm prices are having on them.

Speaking at a fundraising reception at the Dave and Norene Wollenzien residence, Culver said such steps as encouraging a greater flow of funds to rural banks and strengthening farm commodity programs could “help avert disaster” in these sections.

He said the Federal Reserve can help increase the flow of funds to rural banks through a greater emphasis on “productive rather than speculative credit needs.” He said he has personally urged Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volker to take this step. Noting that the Board has now indicated that it is moving in this direction, he said it is “important to keep the pressure on to see that they follow through.”

Culver stressed, however, that “credit is no substitute for fair prices,” and said the USDA should strengthen commodity programs by raising support prices and reversing its decision on a paid diversion program. “This is what our farmers really need, and the Administration owes it to them, after the embargo,” he said.

Culver said the scarcity and high cost of credit caused by the Federal Reserve’s tight money policies are having “a disproportionately heavy impact” on farmers and small business operators.

He said they are suffering more than others because farmers with high fixed costs cannot pass borrowing costs on to consumers, and small businesses do not have the alternative sources of credit which large corporations do.

“Actions must be taken,” he said, “to spread the burden of high interest rates more equitably through the economy. If we cannot do this, many small businesses and family farmers – who are the backbone of our economy and way of life in Iowa – may fold. The net result will be even greater inflationary pressures in the future because of the loss of competition and productivity which will result.”

Culver said the ultimate solution to interest rate problems is reducing the rate of inflation. He said he has “spent many long hours” this month in the meetings the Administration has had with congressional leaders to balance the budget, and believes that “a balanced budget is critical at this time to send a signal to the rest of the economy that the government is serious about putting its own house in order.”

This fiscal restraint will also help lessen the excessive reliance on high interest rates to fight inflation,” he said.

In his remarks, Culver also repeated his call for filling the current vacancy on the Federal Reserve Board with a person who understands farm and small business credit needs.

“The Board, and it’s policies, are currently controlled by large banking and corporate interests,” he said. “There is no strong voice on the board for the needs of the agricultural and small business sectors of our economy, and the current credit crisis graphically demonstrates why this must be corrected.”

Culver said his proposal has gained the support of the Northwest Iowa Farm-Business Coalition, various state and national associations and Senator William Proxmire (D-Wis.) who chairs the Senate Banking Committee. Proxmire’s Committee is the Senate panel which must approve nominations to the Federal Reserve Board.


Monday, April 7, 1980. Indianola – Increasing the corn loan rate is “the most effective single step that can be taken at this point to ease the crisis facing Iowa’s agricultural economy,” U.S. Senator John C. Culver (D-Iowa) said here Monday.

Speaking at a fundraising reception at the Simpson College Chapel Lounge, he said it is “really too late” to effectively implement a paid land diversion or set-aside program because the planting season is about to begin.

Culver criticized the administration for its unwillingness to adopt either program, saying the White House “has failed to keep its word that the farmers would not have to bear the brunt of the effects of the Soviet grain embargo.”

He said the grain purchase program has not been effective because the Administration “has been unwilling to buy grain at reasonable prices even though they were willing to pay major grain companies the full cost of contracts for Soviet-bound grain that was not shipped.” 

Culver said the Administration’s “unwillingness to do more to help farmers” stems from its “overly rigid reliance” on interest rates and fiscal restraint to combat inflation,

He said he has “repeatedly urged” the White House, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board to “take further steps to restore farm prices and market confidence.”

He said the steps he has been urging include implementation of a paid diversion program, a set-aside program, meaningful loan rate increases, a greater flow of Federal Reserve funds to rural banks, appointment of a farm and small business credit expert to the current vacancy on the Federal Reserve Board, opening the grain reserve to all farmers, requiring government grain purchases to be made at pre-embargo prices and jawboning national supermarket chains to offer consumer specials on beef and pork.


How the Biggest Part of the FARM BILL has Become Hidden from View

The FARM BILL is often described as a huge omnibus thing that you’re never really going to understand. There’s truth in that. I’ve done some time on the “wonk” side of things, and I know. I wrote two training manuals on issues of the Commodity Title and the CONSERVATION Title, and used them in training of staff at Iowa CCI, and in meetings with FSA and farmers. I also know that there are “the wonk’s wonks,” and on up the chain of complexity. On the other hand, this view, this kind of definition mystifies and de-powers us.

Another common way of explaining the Farm Bill is in terms of a pie chart of Farm Bill spending. This is a dominant paradigm today. I call it the “Visible Farm Bill.” Really though, spending, the Visible Farm Bill, should be understood as only part of the Farm Bill, and in fact, it’s the smaller part.

These two categories can provide to the Sustainable Food Movement a simple way of understanding the Farm Bill. There are really two main parts to the “farmer” part of the farm bill: 1. market management, and 2. supplemental provisions. (I’ll discuss the NUTRITION Title farther below.)

Market management is the bigger part of the farmer side of the Farm Bill, historically, ideally, and as measured by it’s absence from what’s called the Farm Bill today. Market management refers to management of the supply and price of farm products. It’s been needed in the Farm Bill for at least 150 years because farm crops, especially grains and oilseeds, cotton and DAIRY, “lack price responsiveness” ( “on both the supply and the demand sides for aggregate agriculture.” ( That means that in unregulated (deregulated) ‘free’ markets, farm prices are usually very low, even below the cost of production. The Farm Bill has fixed this economic problem by helping farmers to cut back on production, as needed to balance supply and demand, and then to use Price Floors, to help farmers get fair prices. Price Floors are not subsidies, and are usually the opposite of subsidies in their impacts. They’re like minimum wage.

The farmer part of the Farm Bill, (when we have a real farm bill,) isn’t just for farmers. It’s for the good of everyone. For one thing market management also includes Price Ceilings to trigger the release onto the market of Reserve Supplies during rare times of excessively high prices. This protects consumers, LIVESTOCK interests, and other buyers of all kinds, all along the food chain.

Unfortunately, under corporate pressure, Congress reduced, (1953-1995) and eliminated (1995-2018) farm bill price and supply management. Farmers fought back against this “cheap food,” cheap corn, cheap cotton, cheap milk, etc. In response, Congress continued to reduce Price Floors, but added subsidies, to quiet down angry farmers. With subsidies, however, farmers have continued to get less than what they used to get (reduced prices + subsidies per unit = net reductions).

Cheap food and cheap farm products, (from reducing and eliminating market management,) have contributed to a large number of major problems. They’ve provided extremely cheap ingredients for junk food, and feeds for unsustainable CAFOs, as the United States, the dominate farm exporter, has lost money on exports, (export dumping,) that, at the same time, have run farmers out of business all across the world, causing rural poverty and hunger.

Many problems have been addressed with Farm Bill market management, and many more could be. That means that we can fix things without much spending money. (Early Farm Bills made money for the government, as farmers paid interest on Price Floor loans, for example.) Others cannot. That’s why there is Farm Bill spending to address a variety of needs. Unfortunately, as Farm Bill market management has been reduced and eliminated, many of these needs have been made worse, starting with the need for farmers to earn an income. Other problems include reductions in Resource Conserving Crop Rotations, (as CAFOs took over the livestock industry,) air and water pollution from those CAFOs. Rural poverty has also been fostered, both in the US and globally, creating a greater need for spending on Rural Development and Food Aid.

Food Subsidies, (originally Food Stamps,) and similar programs of the Nutrition Title are similar to farm subsidies. They’re in the farm bill, and there are contentious arguments about the money spent on them. There are also important market management components on this consumer side, but most of these are not in the Farm Bill, and not under the jurisdiction of the agricultural committees that make the Farm Bill. These include minimum wage standards, such as LIVING WAGE, labor laws, and full employment policies and programs. With a living wage, much less money is needed for food subsidies.

It’s crucial that the lexicon of the farm bill de-mystify it, bringing the Hidden Farm Bill, (market management,) back out into the open. The problems of the Farm Bill can’t be solved by considering only the Visible Farm Bill.

The FARM BILL has also had market management for vegetables and fruits. These are perishable farm products, like DAIRY, and market management has been handled differently for them than for storable crops, like grains. As in the case of dairy, this this has been handled through Market Order programs. According to Douglas Bowers et al, in “History of Agricultural Price-Support and Adjustment Programs, 1933-84,” ( these kinds of “Marketing agreements raised producer prices by controlling the timing and the volume of the commodity marketed.” “Regulations for other commodities (primarily fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts) approached the problem of producers’ prices indirectly. Quantity, quality, and rate of shipment to market could be controlled, and prices received by producers were indirectly affected.” These programs also need to be fixed. This kind of supply management can provide vegetables and fruits to other USDA programs, such as those of the NUTRITION title.

Further Reading

See these articles from APAC.

“Clever money delivery systems,” December 29, 2006, #334,

“Johanns’ ‘facts’ divert attention from agriculture’s root policy problem?,” October 13, 2006, # 323,

“Johanns’ ’60 percent of farmers do not receive payments’—A case of correct answer to the wrong question?” October 20, 2006, #324,

See data at

Vimeo Video link: Defining the Farm Bill is a Political Act

Progressives Need to Stop Siding with Conservatives on Water Quality

The recent bickering on social media between Republican Rep. Chad Ingels, IIHR research engineer Chris Jones and others,(Gazette, Erin Jordan, 7/9/21, sheds little light on how we can fix Iowa’s water quality problems, and surely taints those at the University of Iowa who are supporting the efforts with science.

Jones attempt to turn it into a race issue, called “race baiting” by Ingels, appeals to some urban progressives, as seen in it’s placement on Civil Eats. Jones’ argument, that Ottumwa’s water quality problems represent racism merely because it’s population is 14% Latino and 5% black, should have been enough for rejection by Civil Eats.(Chris Jones,

Jone’s piece should be understood in the context of the larger, 21st century urban progressive approach of blaming or bashing farmers. This in turn stems from a variety of anti-farmer myths, ( especially farm subsidy myths, ( according to which it’s assumed that farmers have been rewarded into the various environmental problems on farms. Logically, that’s like saying that Food Stamps and other welfare caused, (rewarded,) the many social problems of the urban poor. That leaves out the larger urban economic issues, like poverty, redlining, and a low minimum wage. 

So too for farmers. The environmental problems on farms have risen as minimum farm price floors were lowered and eliminated, as farmers were penalized.( Net farm income, (which included added subsidies,) went low and stayed low.( 60% of farms were lost, and most surviving farms lost all value added livestock and poultry, ( as CAFOs were subsidized by farmers, by cheap prices. Most farms then lost the sustainable livestock crops, grass, hay and nurse crops like oats.(See previous link. I’ll soon have more slide shows on this, featuring 26 states.)

Politically, what Jones, and urban progressives generally, fail to understand is that their position is the same as that of Republicans like Ingels on a number of key issues. Against the kinds of evidence I’ve described in the previous paragraph, both think we’ve been rewarding farmers. Both think that farmers and agribusiness are on the same side of the issues, the Republican side. Neither side blames agribusiness for what they’ve done to farmers. Neither side supports restoration of fair farm price floor programs.

For example, Ingels argues that farming “practices … evolved over time to help farmers stay in business and supply food to the nation.” No, they didn’t evolve to help farmers and the food system. They evolved out of the lowering of farm prices, out of policies designed to force farmers to subsidize agribusiness, including CAFOs, to give farm products to these businesses at below the farmers’ full costs of production, which has been happening most of the time for 8 major crops since 1981, and for dairy since 1993. ( And secondly, with the loss of livestock to giant CAFO corporations, and the loss of the diversity of livestock crops, they evolved to enable the input sellers to sell more products, as low input crops were lost and high input crops replaced them. Thirdly, they evolved out of the increasing necessity of farmers to get off farm jobs, leaving them with less labor and more intense capitalization. (See data on the large increase in the off farm income of surviving farmers here.

Historically this was a Republican led problem, support for agribusiness at the expense of farmers. ( Back more than two decades, the key economic solution was the Harkin-Gephardt farm bill proposal, to restore adequate price floor programs. It was supported by most Iowa farmers, and by black farmers and the Congressional Black Caucus. A 1987 FAPRI study of the proposal found that it would favor a significant change toward grassfed livestock systems and away from CAFOs. (

Only in the 21st century have Democrats and urban progressives joined Republicans in opposing economic justice, (and greater sustainability,) for farmers. A key here was when former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin abandoned his farm bill proposal, upon becoming Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. (

Solving Iowa agriculture’s large environmental problems requires help from water quality scientists like those at the University of Iowa, but it also requires academic understanding of the economic problems that undergird the problems. Short of that we end up with misinformed progressive farmer bashing that sides with conservative anti-farmer interests in key ways against the environment.

Reclaiming Farm Trade Terms

Over the years a variety of terms have been used to mystify the issues of farm trade, in order to push ‘free’ trade agendas against the interests of farmers and the US. A glossary of more adequate definitions is needed to begin to discuss trade in the real world.

Farm trade seems to be characterized by “doublespeak” (George Orwell, 1984,) more than many other topics. In recent decades we’ve seen a series of “trade” or “free trade” agreement negotiations, NAFTA (and other “AFTA’s), GATT (leading to the WTO organizational structure,) KORUS, TTIP and TPP, which was just opened up yesterday.

The Farm Bill is another place where the lexicon of trade shows up. Trends in the Farm Bill since 1953 have been to lower farm prices to the cheapest levels possible, and at the same time to argue that this would be a good thing for farmers and for the U.S. The majority of farmers have always disagreed with this approach, and they’ve been proven correct in these disagreements.

“EXPORTS” Trade involves exports and imports. The standard form of mystification by agribusiness exploiters has been to talk about increasing farm exports, and then improving our “balance of trade,” (by exporting more than we imported). The 1985 Farm Bill, for example, lowered Price Floors, (like minimum wage,) drastically. They claimed that this would help U.S. farmers, because we’d export a greater quantity, and later prices would rise, as farmers elsewhere were put out of business.

Within a year or two this appeared to be coming true. “Exports” were up. That is, if you define “exports” as export volume, then exports went up. If you define “exports” as export value, however, “exports” went down. So it was a bad deal economically that was spun as a good thing, by manipulation of the terms. We see then, that there are a variety of terms.

EXPORTS, can go up or down, but can mean VOLUME (QUANTITY) or VALUE.

BALANCE OF TRADE can be positive (a TRADE SURPLUS) or negative (a TRADE DEFICIT).

All of these terms can mislead us, as they don’t ask a more fundamental question: Are we making a profit on trade? We can increase the volume or the value or both and still lose money per unit. In that case, the more trade, the more money we lose, the more we subsidize foreign entities. So value is more important than volume, but it can still be misleading.

The same applies to balance of trade. We can have a trade surplus, or a trade deficit, but that still doesn’t answer the question of whether we’ve lost money on it or made money on it.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a term in use for farm trade that tells whether or not we’re MAKING A PROFIT ON TRADE.

More than that, we also haven’t even been increasing the volume of our farm exports in the long haul, as we’ve maintained farm price levels below the cost of production! (See Daryll Ray links on this, below.)

The mystification is even more fundamental than these distortions, however.

For example, all of the trade agreements focus on what’s called:

FREE TRADE. The myth is that “free” trade gets rid of the red tape and makes economic life easy. You would think then that trade agreements would be short and simple, uncomplicated. In fact, the reverse is true. They’re huge (a 4 feet tall stack of papers?) and packed with endless regulations, telling us what we can’t do in our internal federal, state and local governments. They then can give procedures by which foreign governments can take our federal, state and local governments to trade court, as in the WTO. This is a huge burden to small, poor countries, as it takes a massive new legal infrastructure to respond to or instigate these lawsuits. Basically, it takes a “megamachine,” a power complex, something along the lines of the academic power complex that invented the atomic bomb, (the Manhattan Project) (on megatechnics see Lewis Mumford, “The Myth of the Machine,” 2 vols.).

TRADE versus GOVERNANCE. We see then that the new trade agreements aren’t mostly about trade at all, but are about internal matters of government. They’re global GOVERNANCE agreements, taking over part of our internal federal, state and local government functions. We see, then, in TPP it’s a huge and SECRET agreement that even Congress has NEVER seen, but that a large contingent of multinational corporate leaders HAS seen.

So “trade,” in these “trade agreements,” isn’t mostly trade at all. It’s a front for global corporate government, without any elected representation.

Likewise, if you’re against ‘free’ trade, against losing money on farm exports (and losing money internally in farm states,) then you’re said to be AGAINST TRADE. That is, TRADE is defined in the mainstream corporate media as only meaning ‘free’ trade. If you’re for fair trade, that’s called being anti-trade.

A related term, GLOBALISM, is used to refer to ‘free’ trade and losing money on farm exports, for example. The assumption in the dominant (corporate spoon fed) narrative is that those for fair trade are against global interactions, (against trade). Really, what’s called “globalism” means only CORPORATE GLOBALISM, and it’s not at all in the interests of the global 99%. Really, those for FAIR TRADE are very much in favor of global interaction and trade. What we oppose is the trade war that’s hidden behind terms like “trade” (meaning only “‘free’ trade,”) and “globalism,” (meaning only global corporate domination of our governments and our economies).

PROTECTIONISM is a term used for any effort to maintain profitability in a country against trade regulations that prohibit those measures. So if countries try to maintain profitable farm prices, that’s labeled protectionism, that’s bad. Really, the ‘free’ trade of these trade agreements is massive corporate protectionism.

Related to this is the term COMPETITIVE. Basically, for farm trade, it’s said to be COMPETITIVE when the U.S. has lost money on trade, (although that’s never mentioned). That’s supposed to be more CAPITALISTIC, and even more GREEDY, as we’re seen as bullying other countries around, and running their farmers out of business. Really, we’re losing money massively in our so-called “capitalist” “greed.” (We’ve lost hundreds of billions of dollars on farm exports in recent decades, with the exception of 2007-2014 for 3 crops). On the other hand, being “competitive” goes directly against the basic business value of making a PROFIT! All of this has been clouded in mystification.

We see how U.S. agriculture has been losing money in USDA figures for “Commodity Costs and Returns” ( Most of the major farm crops, (grown on most of the land,) have lost money (vs. full costs) almost all of the time since about 1980-81. The data begins in 1975, so it’s not clear how often US farmers lost money prior to 1975, when we also had lower and lower and lower farm prices from 1953-1972, (as Price Floors were lowered by Congress). I’ve calculated this by taking cost/acre figures for 8 crops, then multiplying this by the yearly production of each, and then adding all 8 crops up for each year and for all of the years 1981-2006. The crops are: corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, rice, grain sorghum, barley and oats. What this shows is that US farmers lost money on these 8 crops as a whole every year 1981-2006, except 1996. At that point, we had about 7 years when 3 of these crop prices, (corn, soybeans and rice,) were above full costs. Meanwhile, the other 5 crops (cotton, wheat, grain sorghum, barley, oats,) continued to lose money, 6 out of 7 years, 2007-2014.

Dairy is another category, and has been below full costs every year 1993-2014, except for 2007, when prices were a few pennies per gallon above full costs. (See link above.)

Today all 8 crops (and dairy) are below full costs, and projections at present are for more of the same through 2024.

Losing money versus FULL COSTS means that farmers got paid a wage equivalent, but lost money on their investments in land, facilities, and machinery.

What we really see in these trade agreements, then, is CORPORATE PROTECTIONISM, protecting the privilege of corporations to buy from farmers at below our costs, and to drive down global farm prices in order to accomplish that world wide. The protection comes from the fact that ‘free’ market ideology fails, leading to huge opportunities for the corporate buyers of farm products to purchase at below the cost of production. This was fixed by the New Deal Farm Bill, with parity (living wage) farm price floors from 1942-1952. Under corporate pressure, Congress reduced (1953-1995) and eliminated (1996-2023) these programs as a sort of ‘free’ market entitlement for the international corporate buysers, at the expense of U.S. and global agriculture.

Note that these U.S. farm trade policies have been the opposite of what OPEC has done for their oil exports. With something like 40% export share, they reduced production, (managed supply,) and made a lot more money. The U.S., in contrast, has had even bigger clout than OPEC, with bigger export market shares for major crops, sometimes well above 50%, (and even up to 90% at times for soybeans). Instead of using this clout to make money, we reduced and ended supply management and price floor programs in order to make less on farm trade, in a global TRADE WAR, a race to the bottom. The goal of these efforts was to increase our export share, but in fact, it’s gone down, so it was all for nothing. While in the past we had international agreements to prevent trade wars, those have mostly ended.

TRADE WARS are supposed to be when countries prohibit cheap, below-cost imports, leading other countries to make similar restrictions. What’s misleading is that the various countries are really blocking our ability to lose money on exports, that then drive the prices for all farmers down, running us all out of business, and making less money for the United States, the dominate farm exporter. Absurdly, we’re supposed to then say “‘Them’s fightin’ words!”

So there again the truth is the reverse of the dominant narrative. The real agricultural TRADE WAR comes with CORPORATE PROTECTIONISM that forces all farming countries to lose money both internally and externally for the benefit of giant multinational corporations. Since 1953, these trends have run most US farmers out of business.

This is also what STARVES THE WORLD. We’re told by our corporate overlords that we must FEED THE WORLD via overproduction and cheap food. Really, however, 80% of the “undernourished” are rural, mostly farmers, as is 70% of the population in the poorest or “Least Developed Countries.” Until a few years ago, the rural population made up more than half of global population, so impoverishing rural economies is an enormous problem, not just a problem for a tiny fraction of the U.S. population. Our FARM JUSTICE activism here, (activism for fair trade, living wage farm prices,) is especially important, as the U.S. is the dominant exporter. This is a fight on behalf of our country and our government against the multinational corporate overlords who have colonized our government (i.e. USDA, Congress, the Presidency,) to force us to lose money on farm exports for their direct benefit. It’s also a fight for all of the agricultural regions of the world, and against hunger.

Free trade is based on FREE MARKETS, and free markets have not worked very well at all for agriculture under most market conditions we’ve had for 160 years, on into the 21st century. As Williard W. Cochrane has put it, in summarizing the evidence, (The Development of American Agriculture, p. 371,) “We now have an aggregate demand relation and an aggregate supply relation for the agricultural food industry. Both relations are highly inelastic in terms of price.” Or as Daryll E. Ray put it, (see links below) farm products are characterized by a “lack of price responsiveness” “on both the supply and the demand sides for aggregate agriculture.” ‘Free’ markets don’t self correct with an “invisible hand,” (again, not very well at all under most market conditions …). Supply and demand don’t automatically fix themselves on either the consumer (demand) or farmer (supply) sides for the main groups of crops grown in the various farming regions (i.e. in the real world of agriculture).

We see then, (in direct contrast to some of USDA secretary Tom Vilsack’s recent rhetoric, […) that trade agreements like TPP are UNSCIENTIFIC. They’re based upon economic illusions unsupported by any valid body of evidence. The whole purpose is to provide huge profits to a tiny few giant agribusiness corporations at the expense of farmers, of farming states, and of farming countries, including the United States, the dominant farm exporter.

Toward this end, a lexicon of mystification has played a major role.


League of Rural Voters, “Trading Our Future? Defining Agricultural Trade Rules for the Next Century,” YouTube, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, posted 1/16/15.

Mark Ritchie, “Alternatives to Agricultural Trade War,” IATP, 12/1/87,

Brad Wilson, “Why U.S. Farmers Oppose ‘Free’ Trade,” Zspace, 6/22/15,

Steve Suppan, “Agriculture and Supply Management in the TPP,” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Think Forward Blog, 8/13/15.… This is a great update of some of the first insights into the secret TPP trade and governance agreement, related to this discussion of farm-side issues. For example, it expands upon what I wrote above about the 1985 Farm Bill. Learn more about trade from IATP here (

Lori Wallach, “Trade Act Hearing,” Public Citizen, 5/28/09, This is a positive alternative to TPP and similar agreements. Public Citizen is one of the best sources on information on these trade agreements.

“Noam Chomsky on Trans-Pacific Partnership,” YouTube, Representative Press, (Laura Flanders show,) 5/31/15, A great, brief summary related to my post.


Daryll E. Ray, “It’s Price Responsiveness! It’s Price Responsiveness!! IT’S PRICE RESPONSIVENESS!!!” APAC, (U of Tenn.,) 5/6/05,

Daryll E. Ray, “Are the five oft-cited reasons for farm programs actually symptoms of a more basic reason,” APAC, (U of Tenn.,) 10/27/06, Historical context.

Daryll E. Ray, “Policy premise correct three times a century,” APAC, (U of Tenn.,) 9/23/05,

Daryll E. Ray, “Exports: Does Lowering the Price to Capture Market Share Work in the Grain Markets?” APAC, (U of Tenn.,) August 4, 2000 #5,

Daryll E. Ray, “Allowing Grain Prices to Fall Does Not Stave Off Loss of Export Market Share,” APAC, (U of Tenn.,) August 11, 2000 #6,

Daryll E. Ray, “Free-Market Ag Economists and Agricultural Markets: Premises and Results,” APAC (U. Tenn.,) August 25, 2000 #8,

Daryll E. Ray, “Our Export Competitors Harvest 36 Million More Acres Following 1996 FB,” APAC, (U of Tenn.,) June 01, 2001 #46,

Daryll E. Ray, “Will trade liberalization bring about better prices for farmers worldwide?” APAC (U.Tenn.,) December 19, 2003 #176,

Daryll E. Ray, “Export measures often need to be put into context to reflect reality,” APAC, (U of Tenn.,) November 5, 2004 #222, This discusses export “volume” vs export “value,” etc.

Daryll E. Ray, “25 years of export competitiveness and what do you get…”, APAC, (U of Tenn.,) November 10, 2006 # 327,

Daryll E. Ray, “Export-led prosperity: That sounds familiar,” APAC, (U of Tenn.,) September 7, 2007 #370,

Daryll E. Ray, “Current farm policy is based on an export-centric narrative,” APAC, (U of Tenn.,) March 26, 2010 #504,

Daryll E. Ray, “Betting the farm on ‘market access,’” APAC, (U of Tenn.,) August 11, 2006 #314,

The Harkin Compromise

Introdution:  Restoring a Farm Justice Farm Bill

Tom Harkin has been the greatest Senator of the past 20 years because of his leadership in introducing proposals to restore true Democratic Party farm programs through his farm bill proposals.

In 1985 Harkin introduced the Farm Policy Reform Act, (sometimes called the Harkin-Alexander Farm Bill, as it was co-sponsored by Representative Bill Alexander, [D-AR]).  See more information here:  (“The Farm Policy Reform Act of 1985,” ).

In 1987 he introduced another version of the bill, The Family Farm Act, sometimes called the Harkin-Gephardt Farm Bill, (with Representative Richard Gephardt as a co-sponsor).  See more information here:  (“Family Farm Act of 1987, ).

Harkin continued to support this approach until he became Senate Agriculture Chairman in 2001.

The text below is an excerpt from a longer piece, “Subsidies vs Price Floors in Farm Bill History, Revised,” which is found here:  ( ).

The Harkin Compromise

In 2002 when Tom Harkin became chairman of the Senate Ag Committee he switched sides. He stopped advocating for price floors and supported a greened up version of the 1996 Farm bill, (the worst Republican Farm Bill since Herbert Hoover). That goes for 2002, 2008, [and 2014]. In 1985, 1990 and 1996, however, Harkin and the other Democrats in Congress and running for President (ie. Gephardt, Daschle, Wellstone, Simon, Hart, McGovern, Dukakis,) totally rejected this kind of a farm bill. With Harking in the chairman roll, however, all of the progressive Democrats in Congress followed Harkin in what I call “The Harkin Compromise,” his “green” version of Freedom to Fail.

During the 1980s mainline churches also supported this kind of farm bill.   Today they support some version of a greened up Freedom to Fail, as do most other progressive groups including the Food Movement, Environmental Movement and Sustainable Agriculture Movement.  This occurs, surely, either because they believe free markets work, (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition?) or because they don’t really know “what” a farm bill is, (other 21st century progressives).  Efforts are underway to get them all on board for farm justice, to stop then from supporting mere subsidy reforms, (erasing the yellow line on the aqua chart above), for the benefit of animal factories, junk food makers, and export dumpers.

Sustainable and Organic farmers are a special case. During the 1990s in trying to stop Freedom to Farm, the Family Farm [Justice] Movement worked hard to bring in sustainable and organic farm coalitions, (SAWGs, NCSA, SAC,) but failed, and [these other groups] have consistently supported some version of Green Freedom to Fail, [mere subsidy reforms, such as green subsidies or caps], combined with no price floors or supply management [to make CAFOs, junk food makers and export dumpers pay fair prices to farmers]. Their policies provide or would continue multibillion dollar below cost gains for CAFOs and even bigger gains for Cargill and ADM. Sustainable/organic folks have won greener subsidies like organic EQIP and CSP, but at the cost of massive subsidization for unsustainable animal factories to compete against them and drive down their premium prices.

Likewise, when Michael Pollan, in Food Inc. and Fresh, speaks of cheap junk foods, he’s referring to “green” versions of Freedom to Fail policies, [for the cheapest of corn, milk, cotton, rice, soybeans, etc.]. So when Pollan speaks of “subsidized corn” it’s misleading. The low/no price floors caused the low prices and the cheaper high fructose corn syrup and corn/soy transfats, as can be seen historically. The subsidies prevent the destruction of farmers. The bigger the farm, the bigger the losses to be compensated by bigger subsidies. Again, this is rarely mentioned when bashing farm subsidies. (Of course there are some economies of scale with larger farms, which changes their need somewhat, even as they have the biggest reductions in value.)  So ending, greening, and/or capping subsidies are not policies that address the biggest CAFO benefits, processor benefits, ethanol benefits, or exporter benefits against LDC farmers.

By the way, “family farm” advocates and their friends (ie. La Via Campesina with 200 million members) lost over and over on the price floor issue (without much food/consumer/environmentalist/organic help, and still today without help). So some farmers invested in ethanol to try to raise prices (and end processor below cost gains, dumping on LDC farmers). The idea is that when farmers lose money on corn, they’ll make some money it on ethanol, and if they make money on corn, they’ll lose money on ethanol.  It’s a kind of risk management.  No where have I seen this understood in the progressive community outside of NFFC related groups.

(Least Developed Countries are 70% rural. The US has long had huge export market shares of some commodities, bigger than the middle East in Oil, but our leaders tried to get low world prices, not high world prices with it’s clout, (clout of well above 50% export market share for corn and soybeans, for example, or up to +80%, but less each decade).


(Author’s note:  I’m introducing this as a simple fact sheet.  I hope to provide further detail later.)


Farmers today face a serious crisis, at least if present trends continue, as they are currently projected to do by United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service, (ERS) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). A number of factors, (but not all,) make this worse than the 1980s farm crisis.  Here are 10 of them.


[1.] Farm prices are lower.

[2.] There are no price floor programs.

[3.] these programs have been all but forgotten.

[4.] trade policy is worse.

[5.] Most farms have lost value added livestock, the livestock option.

[6.] As a result, most farms have greatly lost the sustainable crop rotation option.

[7.] The infrastructure needed to support for this value-added diversity has been severely reduced.

[8.] Congress is much worse, much more anti-farmer, including even rural progressives, who are generally much the same as conservatives on the big issues.

[9.] The cheap food lobby is bigger than ever, and has more money than ever, (from the farmers who are forced to subsidize them).

[10]. There are enormous myths against us, beyond what we ever had before, especially the subsidy myth.

Note.  This is all prior to the additional problems of the Trump trade war.  What’s so bad about the trade war is that it goes downward from the crisis that already existed, though that’s rarely reported.

On the positive side, however, the politics has radically changed, as a number of Democratic Presidential candidates have now come out in favor of restoring the core of the original Democratic Party Farm Bills of the New Deal, (in new ways).  Supporters of Price Floor programs, (with supply management,) include Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, (soon to be released,) Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson, John Inslee, (no longer running,) and, there is interest from others as well.  (Julian Castro, and Joe Biden is proud of his support for these programs in the 1980s.)

Mainstream Media Misunderstands the Farm Bill

Environmental Working Group and most other Food and Environmental groups, and hundreds of Mainstream Media sources, severely misunderstand the farm economy and the Farm Bill.


The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has collected hundreds of editorials that generally support their views of the farm bill, including their focus on farm subsidies and “subsidy reform.” These were then publicized in a series of press releases referring to “252 editorials,” “372 editorials,” “411 editorials,” “475 editorials,” 550 editorials,” “630 editorials,” and “660 editorials,” for example. They represent major newspapers in all of the major U.S. cities and many smaller cities. EWG is the group that operates the Farm Subsidy Database, ( ) which makes available data obtained from USDA through Freedom of Information.

One example of these summaries of media coverage, (with links to the actual editorials,) is a 2008 EWG press release on Common Dreams (alternative media site,) “372 Editorials Call for Farm Bill Reform.” (Original link to the press release: , now see, and

EWG argued that “Two main themes emerge from these editorials.” First, they argued that subsidies go “to wealthy individuals and operations that do not need support,” for example, compared to “nutrition and conservation” programs. A key assumption, then, was that farm subsidies should be reduced, with the money going to these other programs. Second, EWG found the George W. Bush administration to be “far more progressive and reform minded than the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate when it comes to matters of equity and fairness in subsidy payments.”

There are major flaws in EWG’s analysis in this press release and in all others. In general, while the main farm commodity programs are terrible programs the EWG analysis and the editorials don’t explain why or how this is true. In reading hundreds of these editorials, I’ve found none to be correct about any of the basic questions raised by EWG.


What EWG and the editorial writers apparently didn’t know, and still don’t know, is that the original and early farm bills were designed to fix the economic problem of a “lack of price responsivensess” ( ) “on both the supply and the demand side for aggregate* agriculture,” ( ,) (*for farming markets as a whole as they occur across the various regions). This was a problem for 60 years prior to the farm bill, and continues today, (see p. 5 here ) with CBO and USDA-ERS projections of it continuing for another 10 years. The main result was chronic low farm prices, below the full costs of production. The farm bill fixed the problem with market management of price and supply. On the bottom side, (for the main problem,) price floors were used, backed up with supply reductions, (as needed to balance supply and demand from year to year). On the top side, price ceilings triggered the release of reserve supplies, as needed to moderate price spikes. These programs worked well when well managed.

The history of the problems, leading to the recent period, is that Price Floor programs were reduced, more and more and more, from 1953-1995, and then ended (1996-2018). Similar changes occurred for livestock and for fruits and vegetables, where programs supported prices in “less direct” ways. The price reductions were implemented by Congress to allow market failure to force farmers to subsidize (via cheap prices) the huge corporate buyers of grains, fruits and vegetables, and other farm products, and through them, to subsidize consumers.

Subsidies, which were occasionally paid to growers of a few crops during the early years, had only tiny impacts in these early farm bills, and there were no subsidies from 1944 (or earlier, or none,) until 1961 for corn and wheat, 1962 for barley, 1964 for cotton, 1977 for cotton, 1982 for oats, 1998 for soybeans, and never for rye and other crops. These subsidies made up for only a small fraction of price reductions, (about 13% on average). These enormous, ongoing and increasing injustices are totally ignored by EWG and in virtually all of the hundreds of editorials.

The programs have been so bad for farmers that most of them have been run out of business during the period of reductions and compensatory subsidies. Market prices were below full costs** every year except one, 1981-2006, for a sum*** of 8 major crops. (**Full costs figures include a wage equivalent for the farmer, so the losses are on the farmer’s investments in land, machinery and facilities. See the raw data here: (***The sum of 8 crops is calculated as follows: full cost/acre minus income per acre for each crop, as measured by USDA-ERS, then all 8 are summed.) Dairy has been below full costs every year since 1993, except for 2007 by a few pennies per gallon.

Although yields increased dramatically over this period, and subsidies sometimes increased, farmers often made less money per acre. In USDA-ERS studies that include subsidies for 6 major crops, each crop was below zero vs full costs over all. (Over various time periods, corn, cotton, rice, barley, sorghum, and including soybeans, which had no subsidies. I have this data, but I can no longer find it online.) Even in recent years, net farm income has sometimes fallen to less than half of what it was during the 1940s. The major subsidized crops, (corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton,) have each performed more poorly, (as measured by percent of parity,) than virtually all (i.e. 45) important fruits and vegetables, even if subsidies are included in the calculations, though fruits and vegetables have also fallen dramatically.

What we see, then, is that, with Congress reducing and eliminating minimum price floor programs, agriculture has desperately “needed” farm subsidies, (especially for the subsidized crops).

The question of rich beneficiaries who do not need benefits also begs for accurate analysis. First, who has stayed in business under these conditions? Increasingly it’s been those with off farm income. In 1960 the ratio of off farm income to farm income for farming households was about 1 to 1. By the 2000s it had grown as high as 10 to 1 for extended periods, and even as high as 20 to 1 on bad farming years. The key here is that farm losses provide tax write-offs for off farm income, and the richer the tax bracket, the the bigger the tax subsidy per acre. For example, the top bracket gets nearly 4 times more than the 10% bracket, per acre, assuming identical farms. We see, then, that major tax reforms are needed as well. This, then, complicates the question of those who are rich, (from off farm income,) getting subsidies for huge farm reductions and losses, (caused by bad farm bills from Congress, in a context of chronic market failure).

Even more dramatic, and totally left out of EWG’s analysis and the editorials, is the question of the real beneficiaries of these programs, the corporate buyers. While all farm subsidy recipients first face huge reductions in prices and incomes, (with the greatest quantity of reductions going to the biggest farms,) the buyers get their much bigger benefits, and they get them without any prior reductions. Instead they’ve often had record high incomes and returns on equity (often in the high teens or well into the 20% range, or even in the 30% or 40% range). (See A.V. Krebs, the Corporate Reapers, pp. 48 & 419, and this report: .) Meanwhile, farm incomes have fallen, more and more, and returns on equity for agriculture have usually been in single digits, and only rarely in the teens (i.e. since 1960).

So there is no “means testing” for these (much much larger) corporate beneficiaries,( ,) and no transparency as to their subsidies, no public database for the much larger corporate subsidies taken from farmers to give to corporate buyers. Additionally, these larger farmer-to-buyer “subsidies,” since they result from market failure, don’t show up at all in farm bill spending pie charts,( ) nor do USDA subsidy maps ( ) and articles, (i.e. analysis of subsidy impacts,) take account of them.

While the biggest 4 corn farmers have well under 1% market share,, (i.e., as estimated from the farm subsidy database rankings,) there are huge market shares for various groups of buyers, such as hog and poultry CAFO corps, (top 4 around 50%, ) and exporters (top 3 probably around 80% according to experts, personal communication, but see ). So the benefits are much much greater per recipient among the corporate buyers, (who’s rate of benefit per unit is 8 times greater than that of farmers, and with no prior reductions, i.e. compared to the farmers who pay these [8 times greater] benefits).

Neither EWG nor any of the editorials demonstrates any knowledge of any of this context either. In arguing for taking money from farmer victims to feed the hungry, they’re penalize one victim group to favor another. In the meantime, strategically and politically, subsidy related farmer bashing and victim blaming leads groups like EWG to be severely divided and conquered, (divided from those who could save them from these severe mistakes, where they end up supporting the biggest exploiters, such as the biggest benefits for junk foods, CAFOs, and export dumpers).


The analysis above shows how EWG and hundreds of the editorial writers, (those that discuss proposals from the Bush administration,) were also wrong on the second major theme. The Bush administration, EWG and the editorial writers, in ignoring the need for farm justice more than the Democratic leadership does, are less progressive, not more.(On this point see: and ) Real reform, however, requires restoration of market management programs at adequate levels, to eliminate the need for subsidies.(See the major current proposals here: .) So none of the above are reformers.


Farm Price Records

EWG further claimed, falsely, that the farm economy had seen “record high farm income and record high prices for many crops.” This falsehood has also gone viral all across mainstream media.(i.e. ) In fact, however, the much higher prices of 2007 and 2008 were small fractions of the real record highs, (i.e. only about 25% or less of record highs for corn, wheat and rice). They just seemed high because they followed decades of lower and lower farm prices, with the lowest prices in history occurring, over and over, from 1997-2005, (i.e. 8 of the 9 lowest for both corn and soybeans, and similar for other crops; I’ve crunched these numbers). EWG andmainstream media have totally ignored this massive context of hard times on the farm. In the case of The Gazette, (Cedar Rapids,) in the letter linked above, for example, since they regularly buy syndicated articles, and since these articles sometimes contain claims of “record high farm prices,” they can’t help further spreading the myth.

Net Farm Income

Likewise, even with greatly increased yields, Net Farm Income for 2007 and 2008 was well under 75% of 1942-1952, when all 11 years were higher. Only 2013, (later, and following the drought of 2012,) showed a Net Farm Income higher than some years in the earlier period, (and it did not rate in the top 6, including 1973, the record high). 2016 and 2017 Net Farm Incomes, (and projections ahead 10 more years,) are all below 50% of Net Farm Incomes during 1942-52. (Note that all of these recent net farm incomes, including all projections, include farm subsidies.)

The Absurdity of NOT Adjusting for Inflation

Perhaps we can assume that the myth of record high farm prices is explained by simply not adjusting for inflation. In that case, here locally, a June 2008 price for a bushel of corn was $7.01, and a few days later, in June, the price hit $7.03. Really, however, it’s absurd to call that a record high when it’s less than half of the real record high, of $2.16 in 1947, (when it’s only 91¢ in 1947 dollars, GDP deflator). ($2.16 iwas $16.80 in 2008 dollars In that method, for many items that follow inflation closely, every absurdly flawed. Complaining about low wages? “Your last pay raise was a ‘record high.’ Stop complaining.”

In fact, it’s possible for a statistic to be a record low every single year, nominally, andyet really be a record high, also every single year, if you adjust for inflation!

Record High Equals Record Low.jpg


We see, then, that the two main themes identified by the Environmental Working Group in the 372 mainstream media editorials it obtained are both essentially false. A major problem with them is that subsidies aren’t at all the real problem. Subsidies are a form of justice for farmers, (not injustice,) but they’re also seriously inadequate. Really there should be fair prices, with no need for any subsidies. While there has been a lot of writing on farm bill issues in recent years by mainstream media and among Environmental, Hunger, Food and other progressive organizations, virtually all of it has been so false as to be the opposite of the claims made about farm bill reform. It has led countless organizations to unknowingly side with agribusiness exploiters, include junk food makers, animal factories, and export dumpers, all otherwise severely criticized these days by these same groups. Mainstream and alternative media, for their parts, do not perform any better when it comes to the core farm bill issues.

Pro-Farmer State Strategy: Reconcile Farm Justice with Sustainability

Pro Farmer State Strategy: Reconcile Farm Justice with Sustainability

Here is a proposal for state level strategy to take back the rural vote and fix the farm and food system. It counteracts key approaches through which the Republicans have been winning the farm vote, even though they’re policies and programs have been devastating for farmers and the rural economy, (not to mention environment, climate, public health, animal welfare, and other concerns). The economy was a top priority for voters last time around, and it’s the place where Democrats, and especially progressives, were weak. On the other hand, a focus on the rural economy is probably the most winnable thing that Democrats, especially progressives, can do.


All of this is in the context of the policies and programs of the federal farm bill, which was great on the core issues from 1942-1952, but which Congress/Presidents reduced (1953-1995) and eliminated (1996-2018). This is the price issue, (which is falsely misunderstood in the dominant narrative and the dominant alternative narrative as the farm subsidy issue). The early programs featured minimum price floors (similar to living wage,) backed up by inventory management to balance supply and demand. That’s primarily a federal issue. THE FOCUS HERE IS ON STATE LEVEL ISSUES, which have their own needs and priorities.

This is a quick draft, so it’s a bit repetitive, focusing on a few key issues in simple ways.



A major key to winning is to beat the Republicans (and compromising Democrats) on farm economics. Emphasizing farm and rural economics is much more important to taking back the rural vote than the lists of other progressive issues, (no matter how excellent, i.e. on organic and local food). While many issues are well geared to getting support from those who will vote for you anyway, what’s been missing are leaders who ALSO can take back significant chunks of the rural vote.


The key is to fix things in ways that clearly help farmers, that are clearly pro-farmer. So look at what rural candidates are doing and saying, for example at the state level, and ask them:

What are you doing for farmers and the rural economy? (Probably not much.)

Most farms have lost livestock under the current system, and most of the hogs, for example, that are still on farms are owned by a tiny few corporations, by just 4 corporations in fact, such as the Chinese company Smithfield WH Group, (formerly Shuanghui International). Do you support that system, (do you support the 4 corporations,) including Chinese ownership of US hogs? (This is a key area where Republicans have incredibly weak answers, but may have never faced the questtion in this way.)

Do you believe that deregulated free markets work for agriculture? (This especially applies at the federal level, but is so helpful that it should be used at the state level as well. No, these markets haven’t worked very well at all, for 160 years, and right into the 21st century, and projected ahead for another 10 years.)


Whereas the state and national farm economy has been devastated by decades of increasingly counterproductive Republican policies and programs, my plan to help farmers (at the state level) is to reverse the pro-CAFO policies and programs, and provide new incentives in the opposite direction. Ultimately, I want much more than a moratorium on CAFOs. I want to see strong incentives to bring livestock out of CAFOs and back to farms, and in diversified ways, where they utilize grass, alfalfa and clover, to strongly support resource conserving crop rotations, giving farmers more freedom, and especially, reducing the costs of farming, by reducing the need to purchase fertilizers and pesticides.

Here’s another example of wording to make these points.

Whereas free markets have lead to a devastating loss of freedom for farmers, including the loss of the livestock option on most farms and the loss of the options for the best resource conserving, multi-year crop rotations, making farmers much more dependent on both the agribusiness output complex, (buying from farmers,) and the agribusiness input complex, (selling to farmers,) with the CAFO complex taking most value added livestock away from farmers, …

More examples of wording.

Whereas CAFOs hurt rural (Illinois) public health, environments, economies and communities, we/I support a reversal to all incentives for CAFOs, including economic incentives, lenient regulations and nuisance lawsuit protections, and in contrast we support measures in support of family-farm-sized and diversified farms.

Whereas (Illinois/US/etc.) livestock production is increasingly owned by a tiny number of giant corporations, including the Chinese, (Shuanghui International,) massively taking value-added livestock away from diversified family-sized farms, leaving them with only low-value corn and soybean production, thus devastating resilience and making farms more dependent upon purchases of inputs from giant corporations, we support measures that will bring livestock diversity back to most independent family-sized farms.


The key thing NOT to do is blame the problems ultimately on farmers, or limit solutions to those that further penalize farmers. Why? Because 1. it is the penalization and exploitation of farmers that has created the problems, and 2. the first and most direct victims are farmers themselves.

This is a big challenge, as the dominant narrative strongly leads us to blame farmers, to push farmers to vote for the Trump Republicans, against their authentic farm interests.

Examples. Don’t just call for further regulation of farmers, for example regarding the environment, and don’t call for regulations first. Your top priority must be support for economic revival for farmers and then that leads to economic revival for rural towns. Republican ideology and programs (pro-CAFO, leaving farmers with low value crops,) have devastated farmers and rural towns.

The CAFO example. The CAFO system has taken value added livestock away from most farms, leaving only low value, below cost, crops like soybeans, wheat, rice, cotton, corn and other feedgrains. That then makes sustainable (resource conserving) crop rotations more difficult, as these rotations utilize livestock feeds, such as alfalfa and clover, grass, and small grain nurse crops such as oats and barley. All of that helps to stop the use of expensive pesticides, seeds and harsh fertilizers, (which are all bad for the soil).


Cheap farm prices, the loss of value added livestock on most farms (to the Chinese, the Brazillians, etc.) and the loss of the freedom and flexibility of livestock systems and diverse crop rotations is what hurts small towns in massive ways, as has been massively documented. SEE THE RESOURCES BELOW.


ECONOMIC CAUSE. Government subsidies DO NOT subsidize CAFOs (and junk food and export dumpers)! Do not fall for that. They’re subsidized by the failure of free markets, (by believing in Republican free market ideology). This is a chronic ECONOMIC problem that is projected to continue indefinitely into the future, and it’s surely worse since farmers lost the livestock option, (as they’re forced to make worse choices).

POLITICAL CAUSE. The failure of free markets was fixed incredibly well by the Democrats at the federal level, when they invented the farm bill core of market management (of price and supply/inventory). This made agribusiness pay farmers 69% more for corn, 48% more for cotton, 45% more for wheat, etc., on an ongoing basis (1942-52 vs pre-farm bill 1920-35). So the primary POLITICAL cause of CAFO (junk food, export dumping,) free market subsidization is the reduction (1953-1995) and elimination (1996-2018) of the core market management programs at the federal level. The 2 key proposals to fix that are the NFFC farm bill, (Food from Family Farms Act,) and the National Farmers Union (NFU) farm bill, (Market Driven Inventory System), plus a similar NFFC proposal for dairy (and a proposal for dairy supply management related to this was introduced in Congress last time around).

CAUTION.  Perhaps the most widely misunderstood resources on the subsidy question applied to CAFOs are those of Tim Wise (et al) at Tufts University.  Wise argues correctly that “implicit subsidies” benefit CAFOs.  What’s misunderstood is that “implicit subsidies” are NOT government farm subsidies.  They’re ECONOMIC free market failures, combined with the POLITICAL reduction (1953-1995) and elimination (1996-2018) of Democratic market management policies and programs.  On this point see: .


Subsidies have been needed ONLY when Price Floors have been reduced and eliminated, returning to free markets, as in Republican ideology, (as has happened). But in the long run, subsidies instead of fair prices hurt farmers, as the cheap prices force farmers to subsidize the loss of their own value added livestock to CAFOs. So with free markets plus subsidies, farmers face a nasty dilemma. To remove subsidies while not restoring Democratic market management is even worse, and would rapidly devastate the farm and food system. It’s a dilemma, created by Republicans. And then farmers get the blame, not agribusiness.

Republican deregulation of crop farming and of livestock systems calls for ignoring pollution, damage to health, inhumane methods and other large concerns. This helps reduce the costs of production for farmers. Since farmers are grossly underpaid, they need Republican deregulation, (IF almost no one is advocating for the restoration of Democratic market management and the other things that farmers really need). This is a dilemma. The resolution is to find STRONG solutions to the underlying problems that ALSO help farmers. These should be solutions that change farming systems as a whole, not merely back to previous systems, but forward to alternatives that are even more resource conserving than in the past.

I’ve proposed the restoration of fair prices, combined with special market management incentives to bring livestock out of CAFOs and on to forages in sustainable grazing systems. It could be part of supply reduction, to allow much more grazing on supply reduction lands than under previous programs. This would fix problems while helping farmers.

Effective restoration of the livestock option (in a way that encourages grazing and hay production,) then brings restoration of the option for resource conserving crop rotations. This then is a way to strongly address CROP POLLUTION problems, (& loss of carbon, loss of diversity, and etc.) while ALSO helping farmers. While not requiring organic production for farmers, it opens that direction up for all farmers, and supports the infrastructure that organic and other farmers (with livestock and enhanced crop rotations) need. Research by the Leopold Center at Iowa State University found that these rotations are more profitable, but there are now much increased barriers to implementing them. We need policy tools to help overcome those barriers (see above and below).

Additional regulations should be paired with the level of minimum price programs. How much public good should farmers provide? Ok, then manage markets to raise prices to pay for that. The more public good, the higher (closer to parity) that farm prices should be. This should be the first priority, as it doesn’t rely on government spending. Green subsidies for things like organic farming, while maintaining cheap prices that massively subsidize CAFOs to take livestock away from farmers is a strategy that radically fails to resolve this dilemma. So follow my approach first, so farmers first need no subsidies, (and use market management methods to bring back livestock in sustainable crop rotations,) and then if necessary, consider some green subsidies.

Ok, so farmers need subsidies in the short run (immediately!), but the free markets that necessitate subsidies help giant CAFOs MORE than they help farmers stay diversified and flexible. It’s a nasty dilemma where farmers lose out in the long run. And farmers need deregulation because they’re so grossly underpaid, but deregulation helps CAFOs more than it helps diversified farmers with livestock and sustainable crop rotations, so that too is a nasty dilemma where farmers lose out in the long run.

And then we’re divided from farmers and conquered and we lose the rural vote and we all lose.

There are a long list of farmer dilemmas that basically fit this pattern. Another is the tax system. Since farmers are grossly underpaid, (to secretly subsidize agribusiness,) they need a lot of big tax breaks, but those tax breaks are 4 X bigger per acre for the rich in the top bracket (with lots of off -arm income,) than for those in a 10% bracket, (i.e. identical farms). So the tax breaks help all farmers, but they give a huge competitive advantage to the rich, the richer you are. Again, it’s a savage dilemma against the vast majority of farmers.

So don’t advocate ONLY against subsidies, deregulation, tax breaks, etc., to be divided and conquered, as in the loss of the rural vote last time. Reconcile the dilemmas to take a significant portion of votes away from the Trump Republicans.

Republicans grab all of these dilemmas by only one horn, and all too often, successively sell that to farmers. So in the end, the one-horned proposals of Republica always hurt farmers, but they always make it look like it’s pro-farmer, (for lack of adequate opposition). The state strategies I’ve proposed here are designed to counteract that.


I like to bring along some visual aids to plop down on the table or podium or hold up and plop on the Q and A microphone. I recommend several key pieces.

[1] John Ikerd’s piece, “CAFOs vs Rural Communities,” can be printed (front back) on a single sheet to be handed out, (I prefer the pdf version , but I sometimes use the html version for online postings ).

Ikerd’s piece is a sort of table of contents. It refers to 56 studies to buttress these arguments about how Republican farm policy lowers the rate of wealth and jobs creation in rural regions. Ikerd doesn’t link these materials, so I’ve listed them below. He’s an agricultural economist (emeritus)

[2] Here is the document “56 studies,” Curtis W. Stofferahn, “Industrialized Farming and Its Relationship to Community Well-Being: An Update of a 2000 Report by Linda Lobao,” . 56 pages, great for plopping! So print it out. There are also other, earlier and later books and reports, articles, etc., but citing Ikerd and then plopping the report, which lists the 56 studies, is a good strategy.

[3] Ikerd also mentions, (but does not cite,) more than 40 health studies behind calls for a CAFO moratorium, so while you’re at it plop that one down also: “Precautionary Moratorium on New Concentrated Animal Feed Operations,” American Public Health Association, Policy no. 20037, 11/18/03 (about 5 pp., 46 footnotes,) ). Again, print it out as a visual aid.

[4] On the top 4 and 25 corporations, including the Chinese (and Brazillians?) owning most (hogs, poultry,) or an increasing share of U.S. livestock, see “Pork Powerhouses 2016: Glut of Pigs,” Successful Farming, 9/29/16,, list of top 25 at .

[5] I also like to start by plopping down a copy of “The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies,” from Food and Water Watch, (2012,) . It has a lot of information on concentration, and focuses on economics. 55 pages.

Dear Ag Sec. Perdue, Why are Peanuts Favored over Corn, Wheat, Soybeans, and Oats?

Questions for Ag Secretary Perdue

In looking at the 2014 farm bill, I find that the PLC subsidy trigger for peanuts, (Perdue’s home state,) and rice are much more favorable than the subsidy triggers for other major crops, (corn, wheat, soybeans, barley, sorghum, and especially oats! Well, compared to full costs as measured by USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS).

PLC v cost Peanut adv % x5

Subsidy triggers (technically “Reference Prices,”) are the key standards for calculating subsidies. If average market prices for a crop, (as defined in certain ways for a given year,) fall below the Reference price it triggers a subsidy amounting to 85% of the amount below the reference, multiplied by historical yields, which can be up to 90% of recent yields. (85% x 90% = 76.5%) So the subsidy makes up for about 75% or less of the amount below the reference price.

But if the reference price is only about 85% of full costs (and falling over time as costs rise?), as in the case of soybeans (85% x 75% = ) then the subsidy brings you back up to only about 64% of full costs, in the case of soybeans, (less for wheat, barley, sorghum and especially oats; more for corn).

PLC v cost Peanut adv $ x5

Ok, PLC: that means Price Loss Coverage. It’s like the earlier countercyclical program and still earlier deficiency payments. This is the countercyclical option, where subsidies are directly related to the need for subsidies, (unlike in the Crop [revenue] program, ARC, Agricultural Risk Coverage,) so it’s quite important. After the 2008 farm bill, farmers overwhelmingly rejected the crop (revenue) insurance program (ACRE), but then that rejected (insurance) program is the one that Congress pushed for farmers for 2014, with help from some of the big commodity groups, (i.e. National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association,) and Farm Bureau (insurance company).

PLC v cost Peanut % adv

Cornbelt and Wheatbelt Ag Committee Members Betrayed Us

Well, except those in Congress advocating for peanuts and rice. Unlike cornbelt and wheatbelt ag committee members in places like here in Iowa, the peanut and rice voices won a strong PLC peanut program for their crops. So their farmers had no need to gamble on revenue insurance programs that don’t help you much at all if prices go low and stay low, (as they have no fixed standard of need, but rather use floating, free market standards, relativism, (technically olympic year averages). And that part about not helping you much at all? That’s exactly what CBO has projected ahead for 10 years, (and similar for ERS). The major farm prices will go low and stay low, (and so far they’ve been mostly lower than projected). And then the subsidies will ALSO be less, because the free market says that the cheap prices are appropriate.

(But, of course, the free market chronically fails for agriculture, as is well known, so the crop [revenue] insurance programs favored by Farm Bureau Insurance and their friends in some of the big commodity groups are basically a “theater of the absurd,” a recipe for existential nausea. No wonder farmer suicide rates are so high!)

Betraying Sustainable Agriculture

How about sustainable agriculture! How about a crop rotation that gets you away from row crops, with sod crops such as powerful legumes (alfalfa, clover,) to take large amounts of nitrogen free from the air, without fossil fuels. And then you need a nurse crop, like oats or barley. But the subsidy trigger for oats is only 47.1% of full costs (barley: 77.1%, wheat: 71.1%)!!! That’s how much Congress is helping sustainability, where it counts, in terms of money!

How About a $4.70 Subsidy Trigger for Corn, Instead of $3.70?

What if the subsidy trigger for corn was $4.70 instead of $3.70? That’s what it would have been if it had been equivalent to peanuts. We need to ask Secretary Perdue about that! A lot more corn farmers would have signed up for PLC! Unfortunately, most corn farmers were encouraged to sign up for ARC, the program that’s projected to be a disaster for farmers.

PLC if like Peanuts

Bottom line: it’s not just that Congress hasn’t restored fair price floors to eliminate the need for any subsidies, to make a profit on farm exports and free up nearly $100 billion for other, better uses. Congress has also reduced subsidies.

Well, not so much for Georgia peanuts and Arkansas rice. It’s really the cornbelt and wheatbelt ag committee members who are betraying farmers at the most extreme levels.