Along the Tracks

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Belly up to the trough

From the April 16 Northwest Signal:

Among the traditions handed down in my German ancestry (supposedly; I’ve never confirmed this practice comes from old Deutschland and it may well be a practical joke passed on by my peculiar Miller forebears) is the Wedding Night Hog Trough Dance. Here is the custom, in a nutshell, for those who have never witnessed the spectacle:

When a younger sibling is the first to marry in a family, the eldest son is required to dance in a hog trough in front of all at the sibling’s wedding reception.

A hog trough, of course, is a small wooden or metal feeding container, generally about two feet long and a foot wide, V-shaped or curved inside and watertight to hold the ground corn, supplement, etc., which, when mixed with a little water, creates “slop.”

As you can undoubtedly guess from my photo, I have performed this ritual. Twice.

My familiarity with hog troughs thus well established, I’d like to point out one such feeding implement now overflowing with slop for the pigs ready to belly-up. I speak of the Bush administration’s decision to back off from federal agriculture subsidy cuts.

At the risk of being run over by a rake harrow, let me explain something to my brethren, local small farmers: You are the runts at this federal feeding trough.

Okay, maybe that didn’t cool any tempers, but allow me to continue. Federal subsidies for agriculture are a “free lunch” for those best able to shoulder out other producers. The little guys who farm their own land, full-time or part-time, are only getting the scraps.
Bear with me a little further, as I provide some statistics, courtesy of the Environmental Working Group, to back up my point.

In 2003, the top 10 percent of recipients received over $11 billion in subsidies, nearly 70 percent of subsidy dollars - the top 5 percent received half of all the money, $8.4 billion. Eighty percent of recipients - nearly all of you farmers reading this - received 16 percent of the subsidy money, with an average payout of about $1,800. The top 10 recipients - all 10 corporate entities of one type or another - received $176 million. Number one was Riceland Foods Inc. of Stuttgart, Ark., which raked in $68 million. That same company, since 1995, has received over half a billion dollars from the federal government.

Ohio’s top recipients were far more modest. Niese Brothers Farms in Crestline got the biggest check in ‘03, cashing one for $405,382.

When you reach Henry County, you find there were 1,904 recipients in 2003. The total payout, countywide, was $6,993,903. Even here, the breakdowns are revealing. The top 10 percent (190 recipients) received $3.7 million - 53 percent of the total. The top 20 percent received 71 percent of Henry County’s pie. The remaining 80 percent of recipients split up the last few dollars, collecting about $1,300 each.

Who were those top few recipients taking most of Henry County’s subsidy share? Well, if you really need to know, you can look it up yourself on the Environmental Working Group’s website, Most of the names will be familiar, although a few surprises may pop up. The point here, however, is to note only two of the Henry County recipients cracked the top 10 percent nationwide, and only 17 were in the top 20 percent. In other words, out of Henry County’s 1,904 farm subsidy recipients, 17 shouldered in for a decent meal - and 1,887 were the runts licking up scraps.

One more point: If the Bush administration’s suggested subsidy caps of $250,000 per recipient had been fought for and approved, how many Henry County farmers would have felt the cut? None. Not one. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

Henry County, Ohio is the epitome of a “farm community.” Its farms are nearly all “family farms,” from the biggest of the bigs to the smallest of the smalls. Defenders of maintaining current farm subsidies invariably invoke the cherished notion of the “family farm,” yet the very minor cuts President Bush has chickened out on would not have affected a single family farm here, and I dare say, precious few family farms nationwide.

The numbers tell the tale: The federal farm subsidy program is corporate welfare at its most appalling. If the dollars were cut in half, based on a capping system, family farms would continue to get assistance; corporations would no longer get an automatic influx of extra cash based solely on their size.

With the president backing down on sensible restraint of welfare payments to corporate farms, what will we see in the ag economy? More of what we have already seen: Big corporations, flush with cash, buying out small operations. They’ll be gobbling up family farms to expand their own holdings and increase their next welfare check.

So, getting back to the metaphor, not only does this hog trough provide slop to the fat few, it increases appetites to the point the runts get eaten as well.

Family farms are disappearing, thanks to the federal farm subsidy program.

That’s nothing to dance about.

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