Know wheat from chaff in fixing flawed ag policy

Women among farmers who get little aid

October 8, 2012 

Tammy Horn, an apiculturist, is director of Coal Country Beeworks, part of Eastern Kentucky University's Center for Economic Development, Entrepreneurship and Technology.

  • At issue: Sept. 25 Washington Post editorial, "Take farmers off teat"

The Washington Post's recent editorial shocked me with a rant, lumping all agrarians into broad generalizations and very few specifics of real farmers.

Sentences such as "farmers got rich by selling their crops in a market buoyed by demand from China, India and other emerging markets — but without that they might have gotten just as rich off government aid" assume that all farmers receive subsidies for losses. Most do not.

The editorial also assumes that farmers have control over the prices set for their products. Most do not.

Hear instead the voice of a Shelbyville dairy farmer's wife Ann Chaney Kalmey, writing in The Courier-Journal on Sept. 23, complaining that "one gallon of milk costs $2.49. In 1997, the same gallon of milk cost $2.36, according to the Federal Milk Market Administrator. The federal government sets prices for milk but does not take into consideration the costs to produce it."

Ponder, while we are on this topic, upstate New York farmer Dean Pierson killing 51 cows and then himself on the cold morning of Jan. 23, 2010, after years of struggle to hold on to his farm.

Wrap your mind around the fact that Pierson posted a note to the barn door, warning people not to come in, instructing them to call police. Respect, if not approve, of the fact that Pierson, a third-generation dairy farmer, methodically killed the cows that would require frequent milking, relieving his family members of the burden of providing care after his demise.

Wonder at the fact that his wife, Gwyneth, intended to try to keep the property, named High Low farm. But do not assume that the road will be any easier for her.

Consider the "grass ceiling" faced by female farmers compared to their male colleagues. In an article by Maurice Hladik, "'Grass Ceiling' Overhangs Many Female Farmers," published Sept. 20, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., estimated that 43,000 female farmers have been denied more than $4.6 billion in farm loans and loan servicing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In an attempt to rectify this situation, DeLauro had introduced the 2009 Equity for Women Farmer's Act, which unfortunately died without becoming law.

This lack of access to funding and government programs is reflected in the 2007 census data, which had the average male-dominated farm sized at 410 acres with sales of $152,000 a year. By comparison, the average size of a female-operated farm was 210 acres with sales of $36,000 annually. The "grass ceiling" metaphor accurately sums up, in Hladik's article, the stunted potential for women — and for our nation.

The current subsidy system, which tends to provide the most benefits to five agrarian industries — rice, corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans — is fundamentally flawed. The Washington Post editorial does a disservice to readers, however, by promoting an assumption that all farmers receive subsidies. Nothing can be further from the truth. Do we need to change how the subsidy program works? Absolutely.

So far, the only creative and truly democratic option, one championed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and outgoing Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., would provide an across-the-board cap for loans and grants for all agrarian enterprises.

Like the flat-tax option that entices so many because of its simplicity, the Lugar-Durbin proposal has been too simple to make progress through the various committees.

The opposite extreme, expressed by the Post editorial, misses the boat, too. I fear that more people will have to go hungry in this country before we find a middle way through the agricultural subsidy morass. Our country desperately needs to wean itself from pesticides, increase agricultural diversity, expand research and extension stations, and support community-sustained economics so farmers are not trapped in long-term loans.

Many female farmers already are providing leadership in these directions. As much as I hate the "grass ceiling" inadvertently created by our flawed agricultural policies, I am pragmatic enough to realize that many farmers need some kind of floor.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service