Farm Bill
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
February 2008

The key to a fair and just new Farm bill may rest with policies about which the federal government has little say. Interestingly, the Catholic bishops have talked about it for years – the need to preserve family farming.

To much of the public, the debate over the new Farm Bill comes down to whether we continue with the current subsidy-based system or radically reform agriculture policy by seriously reducing or eliminating the subsidy system. As is often the case, the best policy is something in the middle.

Proponents of radical reform are right in their contention that the current policy needs reform. People who do not farm or have just minimal connections with actual farming get large subsidy payments. The payments are not targeted to small and medium size farms. Also, for some commodities, the subsidy system may make it harder for developing nations to develop an economically self-sustaining agricultural system.

However, apparently under the belief that all farmers are actually millionaires in Manhattan living off subsidy checks, the reformers pushed for too much. An odd partnership consisting of economic conservative think-tanks, certain environmentalists, and some international aid groups, backed by metropolis newspapers like the
Washington Post, argued for reforms that would have eventually hurt true family farmers. These reformers fail to realize that the current agricultural economy is both unjust and subject to forces – like weather – beyond our ability to control. So long as an unjust system exists, some kind of safety net for farmers must also exist.

Recognizing the need for some reform, but not one that cut the legs out from under family farms, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference joined voices for a more moderate approach. For example, they supported amendments to reduce “trade distorting” subsidies that hurt small scale farmers in developing nations. They also supported the Dorgan-Grassley Amendment to cap commodity payments at $250,000 per household. Implicit in their position was also support for the payment limitations and reforms that made into the Senate version of the bill.

However, even from the perspective of this moderate approach, the reforms do not go far enough. What is blocking significant, even moderate reform? The culprit could be the large corporate operations in the South. It appears that, stuck between these powerful interests on one side and the radical reformers on the other, House and Senate members of the Midwest, many of whom favor more limits on subsidies, had to strike deals with the Southern members who oppose greater reform.

The core question that seems to be ignored in this debate is -- what is the proper type of ownership for a farm? Much of the public cry for limiting payments coming from the coastal urban centers revolves around this question. The American public does not like the idea of non-farmers receiving farm subsidy payments.

The problem, however, is that many agricultural operations, especially in the South and West, are large investor-owned operations where the actual owners participate little, if at all, in the farming operations. North Dakota's anti-corporate farming law prohibits these type of operations in our state. Many states, however, have never had such a law and courts have lately struck down prohibitions in some states that do.

Restricting farm ownership to those who actually engage in farming is something Catholic leaders have supported for decades. These leaders, mostly bishops, have recognized that farming is a unique vocation, best left to those who have an intimate relationship with the land they steward in God's name.

Some may feel that limiting who can own a farm infringes upon the free enterprise system. Economic liberty, however, should not be absolute. Indeed, there is a long tradition in Catholicism of favoring such restrictions precisely because they help, rather than hinder, the notion of private property and fair competition. (For those interested, it is called “distributism.” G.K. Chesterton was its most known advocate.)

Congressional leaders could possibly enact greater reforms that still protected small to middle size family farms if the non-rural public was convinced that the subsidies would go to actual farmers. However, the states, not Congress, determine who can own farmland. So long as large investor-owned agricultural operations remain, they will want a piece of the pie, and reasonable, but substantial reforms may remain elusive.