All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1990

Book Review: THE FARM FIASCO by James Bovard

ICS Press, 243 Kearny Street, San Francisco, CA 94108 • 1989 • 356 pages • $18.95 cloth

Beyond the traditionally romantic perception of American farming lies the reality of our inept Federal farm policy—the bureaucratic quagmire so disgusting that few people dare face it, much less get in and explore it. It’s easier just to assume that somehow food and fiber will keep reaching our grocery store shelves, and to hope that the nation’s farmers will keep doing their job, perhaps with a helping hand from the Feds. Enter James Bovard, who with his new book, The Farm Fiasco, has quickly earned himself the title of America’s leading critic of Federal farm policy. He delves into the farm program labyrinth with the intent to conquer it, and actually comes through with his senses intact enough to enlighten the rest of us.

From Bovard, you won’t hear sympathy for the good intentions of farm programs: farm policy is “trampling individual rights, sacrificing the poor to the rich,” and harming farmers themselves, as well as consumers. No excuses for the hundreds of billions spent in farm programs over the past decades: the subsidies defeat their purpose by bungling markets for agricultural products and creating inefficient production methods on the farm. No apologies either for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the political figures behind the whole chaos: most of them don’t understand economics, and even those who do are too addicted to the power and money in farm programs to venture interrupting the flow.

The problem of dependence on subsidies by segments of American agriculture has not received the public attention it deserves—at least not before The Farm Fiasco came out. There hasn’t been a general shortage of food, which gives consumers a sense of security in the status quo. The yearly billions spent by the government on agriculture don’t alarm many taxpayers who have come to accept as truth the USDA’s version of farmers as a welfare case and farm aid as serving to keep America fed. Meanwhile, the complaints arising from the farm sector itself are often interpreted as proof of the need for more subsidies rather than evidence of farm policy failure.

Still, the American public will allow itself to be misled only so far before people start asking questions. And present agricultural policy invites some very provocative questions, such as: “Why should tobacco production he subsidized?” “Why were millions of good milk cows suddenly ordered slaughtered one year? . . . . Why should the largest, wealthiest ag corporations receive the biggest share of handouts?” Or, “Why should certain indi viduals be paid to not farm?” Once the public becomes informed on these and other pertinent questions, a general outcry could erupt, for which some farmers, politicians, researchers, and consumer advocacy groups are already preparing themselves by joining in the protest against farm subsidies.

Bovard’s book is a major contribution to this movement, particularly because of our need for accurate information on the subject. He has researched both the history and reasoning behind Federal meddling in agriculture, which he traces back to the early 1900s, and to which he accords a part in the severe depression of the 1930s. He details the chain-reaction economic consequences of government interference in production and marketing of agricultural goods, and the negative environmental impact of various crop programs. Farm policy, he asserts, is our perfect example of the failure of central planning.

Although Bovard’s assault on the notion of farmers’ deserving Federal handouts will be perceived by some as heartless, he is in many ways vocal in defense of agriculture. The free market, he contends, would do much better justice to agriculture as a whole, and particularly to independent farmers who in many cases have been trodden underfoot by farm programs. “Every dollar of aid the government gives welfare farmers,” he says, “makes it more difficult for self-reliant farmers to prosper and survive.”

Bovard overthrows the myths surrounding farm subsidies in extremely blunt terms. At times he is • derisive, as when he questions the “learning curve” of USDA officials who feigned astonishment when the Dairy Termination Program’s slaughter of nearly two million dairy cows in a few months’ time severely disrupted the beef market. Often he is severe in his criticism, using such terms as “massacre of the innocents” and “schizophrenia” to describe various farm programs. At other times, the absurdities of USDA games with the marketplace evince themselves in a comical style. “In 1948,” says Bovard, “the government spent $206 million buying a third of the potato crop. The government was soon buried in potatoes and ended up dashing them with kerosene and leaving them to rot in such places as alongside New Jersey highways. The nation was outraged, and in 1951 Congress abolished potato price supports. The USDA learned its lesson: Never again would it allow a surplus crop to rot near the highways ofNew Jersey.”

Uncle Sam’s great farm fiasco is not a pretty subject, and James Bovard doesn’t attempt to word it nicely. What he does accomplish is to bring out the facts for public scrutiny in this extensively researched and documented book.

  • Hannah Lapp is a dairy farmer and writer in Cassadaga, New York.