Next senator should push for ag policy overhaul

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul's backpedaling on ending farm subsidies puts him on a well-worn path, trod by many a politician.

Much of the farm subsidy system is an insult to common sense and taxpayers. A mess of faulty incentives, it provides outlandish benefits to a relatively few huge operations — at the expense of small farms, beginning farmers and the environment.

Yet — despite demands for reform from the right and left, from presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — it's impervious to change.

The biggest example of both the staying power of ag handouts and political backpedaling is Congress.

In 1996, a Republican Congress enacted Freedom to Farm to end subsidies and create a free market in agriculture.

To soften the transition, Congress approved what were supposed to be temporary payments to farmers based on what they had grown in the past.

Guess what? The transition payments never ended. Fourteen years later, they continue to the tune of an average $5 billion a year, some of which goes to owners of land that now grows nothing but houses.

An utterly illogical entitlement.

Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to subsidize the production of corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat and rice — even as agriculture racks up record earnings, as it has five of the last eight years.

Americans love the Jeffersonian ideal of the self-sufficient farmer braving the elements to tend a small piece of land. The subsidy lobby exploits that image, but the reality is far different.

According to the Environmental Working Group, which maintains a database (farm.ewg.org) of U.S. Department of Agriculture records: "From 1995 to 2009, the largest and wealthiest top 10 percent of farm program recipients received 74 percent of all farm subsidies with an average total payment over 15 years of $445,127 per recipient — hardly a safety net for small struggling farmers.

"The bottom 80 percent of farmers received an average total payment of just $8,682 per recipient."

Kentucky ranks 25th in ag subsidies. Sixty-five percent of the state's farmers receive no subsidies. The biggest recipients are in the west, a region critical in state political races.

As best we can tell, neither Paul nor Democrat Jack Conway has spelled out a detailed farm policy, even though this is still a farm state.

Paul, who had spoken against farm subsidies, recently said that he is "much more moderate" on the issue than has been portrayed.

Conway's campaign has defended ag subsidies, though citing only the spending that gives taxpayers good value, such as nutrition programs and conservation programs that compensate farmers for protecting water or highly erodible land.

It's naive to think that government won't or shouldn't be involved in agriculture. What's needed are policies driven not by ideology or pandering, but by knowledgeable consideration of how to conserve natural resources while providing a reasonable safety net to farmers who control the land and feed us.

This issue doesn't break along party lines and offers a lot of common ground, even in polarized times.

Kentucky's next senator should help push Congress toward a more rational farm policy.