Prime-time television is rarely, if ever, conducive to serious debates about public policy. Yet a recent article by Danielle Paquette on the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog manages to do just that.
The post, titled “The Bachelor, billionaires and the problem with farm subsidies for the rich,” details how the biography of Chris Soules, current “star” of ABC’s hit show The Bachelor, illustrates the problems with federal agriculture policy.
While Chris plays the role of everyday Iowa farm boy looking to get hitched, in reality, the John Deere-driving playboy is a “fourth generation land baron” who has received more than $370,000 in farm subsidies. This is a very different story from the bottom 80 percent of farm subsidy recipients in his home state, who collect, on average, about $1,600 a year.
The comparison is apt. U.S. farm policy is, in essence, one giant rose ceremony, with a few well-connected farms receiving huge amounts of aid, while the rest are sent packing.
Paquette goes on to explain how last year’s farm bill, which re-authorized agriculture policy for five years, extended a bushel of ill-conceived policies that waste taxpayer money by extending corporate welfare for big agri-business. While there were a few positive reforms — changes such as ending direct payments and reconnecting conservation compliance to crop insurance — major work needs to be done to rein in our bloated, unwieldy farm policy.
Unfortunately, current agriculture policy is nearly impossible to amend. Even as a broad coalition explains how unproductive and wasteful the current system is, a connected ensemble of legislators and high-powered lobbyists are able to exert their strength, continuing the status quo.
In many ways, this is similar to how The Bachelor is renewed season after season. Despite the fact that the show practically invites eye rolling and parodies, an intensely loyal following continues to keep it a ratings contender.
While I don’t see anything upending The Bachelor from a 20th (yes, you read that right) season, recent developments could set the stage for real changes to our nation’s agriculture policy.
Last week Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., joined with Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to introduce the Harvest Price Subsidy Prohibition Act. This bicameral and bipartisan legislation would save taxpayers $19 billion over 10 years by eliminating subsidies for profit guarantee program known as the Harvest Price Option. Unlike traditional crop insurance, which protect farmers from unanticipated losses, harvest price plans actually guarantee that farmers realize profits they didn’t even anticipate in the first place.
Additionally, the USDA is set to tighten the rules on just who qualifies as “actively engaged” in farming. This is to limit the influx of celebrities and corporate executives who receive farm subsidies without ever putting on boots or using a pitchfork. It is in part a response to the Environmental Working Group’s 2013 report that “50 billionaires or farm businesses in which they had a financial interest benefited from $11.3 million in traditional farm subsidies between 1995 and 2012.”
These proposals to limit taxpayer spending are important steps in the direction of substantial agriculture policy reform. However, these changes would represent just the tip of the iceberg of what’s needed to make a responsible system.