Battles over subsidies, farm bill puts farmers in unpredictable situation
At the Scott family farm in North Fayette, visitors can see troughs curving through brown fields where corn will grow in a few months.
The troughs result from a carefully plotted plowing technique — learned by farmers nationwide after years of hard lessons during the Dust Bowl — that is designed to keep topsoil in place to help farms and avoid polluting air and water.
Farmers can receive federal subsidies for practicing contour plowing, earning incentives that supporters of the payments say are important to the environment and consumers.
“The biggest thing is we need (subsidies) to preserve our topsoil,” said John Scott, 65, whose family grows corn to feed about 70 cows on the farm they've worked since the 1780s.
“If you're going to be a farmer for the long haul, the first thing you want to do is be a good steward of the land. (Federal) programs help you do that.”
Subsidies are issued periodically under a federal farm bill. The legislation makes payments to farmers to support them with everything from planting, to crop insurance and soil conservation.
But subsidies are not helping farmers as much as they used to — and they may help even less, starting next month.
Like many farmers, Scott's subsidies, according to a database kept by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, have slowed to a trickle, down 85 percent since 2003 to $2,273.
Farm subsidies have become a target of deficit spending hawks, who believe the payments have spiraled into unchecked handouts, and food advocates, who believe the taxpayer money is being used to make junk food cheaper.
It's a time of unprecedented concern for farmers who rely on the programs, experts said. If Congress doesn't avert cuts by Friday, the government could slash money for conservation programs, nutrition programs for poor families and even meat inspectors.
Furthermore, lawmakers haven't passed a farm bill beyond an extension through Dec. 31, causing uncertainty about how farmers can plant and how much they can rely on crop insurance, experts said. The insurance ensures farmers have a stable income from year to year, despite weather, market conditions and more.
“Everything's just stalled. ... It's a very controversial thing, even with farmers,” said James Dunn, a professor of agricultural economics at Penn State University. “The farm bill is many things, and it's very complicated and it's very political, even in a normal year.”
Dick McElhaney is among several farmers nationwide visiting Washington this week to remind members of Congress to solve financial problems, including approving a farm bill, that impact them.
McElhaney, 76, owner of 125-beef cattle farm in Hookstown, said he worries about losing much-needed support for the agricultural industry provided by the federal government.
Federal employees from several agencies keep a balance between the needs of farmers and environmental concerns, such as land conservation.
Without a long-term farm bill, farmers could have trouble getting credit from lenders and therefore won't plant crops or raise cattle.
On the other hand, McElhaney thinks some farmers, especially dairy farmers, rely too much on federal support instead of the free market.
“It's strictly political, in my opinion. It's game-playing,” said McElhaney, who is a farming representative who works with the National Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
“If (farmers) don't have a long-term farm bill to be able to prove to their banker they can pay back those loans, they're in a big lot of hurt,” he said.
But, “I think everything's eventually going to work out.”
Farmers are willing to support subsidy reform, said Mark O'Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, based in Camp Hill, Cumberland County.
They're willing to give up cash payouts, if the government keeps up robust subsidies for crop insurance he said.
They support granting subsidies to farmers who grow fruits and vegetables, beyond the corn and soybeans for animal feed and processed food.
“I think, like with anything else (in Washington), there is major concern,” O'Neill said. “The concern is it's almost becoming like the weather. (Legislators are) so unpredictable no one knows what's going to happen.”
The government's slow reaction to drought last summer irritated Matt Brigich, 45, of Chartiers.
He thinks subsidies favor big farms and that the situation has hurt his community.
A third-generation farmer, Brigich works the land with his two sons. They say the number of dairy farmers in their township dropped from nine to three over 10 years.
Brigich Farms received nearly $390,000 from 1995 to 2011, the third-highest amount in Washington County, according to the Environmental Working Group database. Brigich got nothing in 2011.
The farm grossed about $150,000 in 2012, not including expenses, which might have been higher, Brigich said.
“Right now (the future's) dim,” he said. “Dairy farmers are all hurting.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.