Washington just can't stop meddling in agriculture. Its bureaucrats saddle farmers with crushing regulations, while Congress provides wasteful and harmful handouts. All the tampering completely disrespects farmers.
Regulations threaten farmers' ability to engage in even the most basic agricultural practices. The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example, have issued a water rule that seeks to regulate almost any body of water — from man-made ditches to land depressions that may hold water a few days a year.
This rule isn't currently being enforced due to pending litigation. But if the regulators win, farmers will have to spend a lot of time and cash to get many more permits just to work their land. Worse, the rule is so vague and subjective that many farmers will simply give up on working productive fields rather than run the risk of having the EPA lower the boom on their operations.
And then there's the Endangered Species Act. All too often, it puts the burden of protecting species on landowners instead of spreading the costs to all taxpayers. Farmers and ranchers, who are particularly affected by this law, are often restricted in how they can use their land, yet they receive no compensation for the trampling of their property rights.
No good comes of poorly considered regulations — especially when they make it so hard for farmers and ranchers to produce our food.
Subsidies are just the flip-side of federal meddling. Washington's elite treat farmers as inferior to other business owners. To them, it isn't enough to provide farmers a strong safety net to protect against major crop losses. They also feel they must insulate farmers from low market prices and make sure they get the revenues that they expect.
The Agriculture Department's recent cheese bailouts exemplify this mentality. Due to allegedly low milk prices, the USDA has twice spent $20 million buying up surplus cheese to help raise the price of milk.
But low prices serve a purpose. They signal to producers that they need to reduce production, and if necessary, diversify, innovate, become more efficient, or otherwise adjust their operations.
Excessive handouts insulate farmers from the need to respond to market conditions. This doesn't merely hurt consumers and taxpayers; it also hurts farmers. It makes it impossible for farmers to receive the full benefit of being better managed than their competitors.
Moreover, these massive subsidies — and farmers' growing dependence on them — expose farmers to the threat of even greater meddling in their business. For example, nutrition-oriented organizations would like to manipulate subsidies to get farmers to stop planting "unhealthy" crops and plant "healthier" crops instead. Some environmental interests are seeking to further condition the receipt of subsidies on farmers' willingness to adopt the practices that they favor.
Enough is enough. Congress needs to place its faith in farmers, not federal bureaucrats and their pet causes. Lawmakers should reduce the regulatory burden and stop shelling out misguided subsidies.
Farmers are every bit as sophisticated and innovative as other business owners. Like them, they are more than capable of succeeding in the marketplace. Any safety net should catch them when they have fallen due to major crop losses, not because they failed to prepare for the inevitable changes in market conditions, such as low prices.
The next farm bill should be one that promotes freedom and respects farmers. Farmers and ranchers need to be allowed to flourish, not controlled by politicians and bureaucrats in D.C.
Bakst is a research fellow specializing in agricultural policy at The Heritage Foundation