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Money for Nothing


Subsidies aid struggling farmers like Queen Elizabeth and Ted Turner.


President Bush vetoed the 2008 Farm Bill, as promised, but Congress overrode it.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said, "At a time of record farm income, Congress decided to further increase farm subsidy rates, qualify more people for taxpayer support and move programs toward more government control."

Though President Franklin D. Roosevelt first created farm subsidies to aid family farmers struggling through the Great Depression, the group Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that 60% of the subsidies in this year's Farm Bill will go to the wealthiest 10% of recipients - even as small family farmers still struggle today.

A few notable farmers just barely surviving with help from the government:

  • David Letterman, of CBS (CBS) Late Night fame.
  • Scottie Pippen.
  • Ted Turner, founder of CNN (TMX).
  • Sam Donaldson, ABC (DIS) news anchor.
  • Ken Lay (no longer receiving subsidies, obviously).

As described by the United States Department of Agriculture, the Conservation Reserve Program is meant to "provide technical and financial assistance to eligible farmers and ranchers to address soil, water, and related natural resource concerns on their lands in an environmentally beneficial and cost-effective manner."

People earning tens of millions of dollars a year are being paid not to cultivate their land, thanks to a section of the Farm Bill called the Conservation Reserve Program.

If you're not a struggling farmer like Ted Turner, don't worry - you can still get your share.

In a report by the Washington Post, a retired asphalt contractor in Texas named Donald Matthews built a home on an 18-acre suburban parcel of land that was long ago used to grow rice.

Under a federal agriculture program, this entitles him to about $1,300 in annual subsidies. Matthews was quoted as saying he doesn't want the money and would rather it go to actual farmers, but was told it would just go to other homeowners.

A classic "only in America" headscratcher?


Overseas, humble farmers just barely scraping by -- farmers like the Queen of England, who received £769,000 between 2003 and 2005 to help run her Sandringham estate and Windsor Castle -- are able to maintain a modest standard of living thanks to agricultural subsidies.

Interestingly, one wealthy Brit collected approximately £168,000 in subsidies for his organic farm in Gloucester between 2003 and 2004 - and he actually works the land.

His name?

Prince Charles.

Researcher Doug Koplow of the Geneva-based International Institute for Sustainable Development writes, "Virtually every production input and production stage of ethanol and biodiesel is subsidized somewhere in the country; in many locations, producers can tap into multiple subsidies at once."

This includes such small-time producers as Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), 43% of whose annual profits are from products "heavily subsidized or protected by the American government," as was noted by the libertarian Cato Institute's James Bovard in his seminal 1995 case study "Archer Daniels Midland: A Case Study In Corporate Welfare".

Archer Daniels' revenues last year were $44 billion. Assuming Bovard's figures have remained constant (one would assume the 43% quoted would now be a bit low, given the increase in corn used for ethanol,) $18,920,000,000 of that came partially from your pockets-and mine.

As more and more corn is used to create ethanol for fuel through heavily subsidized corn production, people in other countries are rioting because there's no affordable corn for them to eat.

A statement released by 20 developing nations including China, Mexico and Argentina said, "The unfair competition brought by subsidies hinders the process of market liberalization by developed and developing countries alike."

I asked my favorite Houstonian free marketeer, Ryan Krueger, to comment. His answer shed light on an even bigger issue.

"A convenient truth about free markets is they would help the poor even more then the rich trying to save them all the time," he said. "Instead of giving, how about hiring? Poverty often shares an address with fertile pieces of land that could be farmed if not for crushing import taxes to bring many crops into the United States and Europe. Many countries would rather send us food they could sell than be given food out of guilt."

Something to consider over your morning bowl of General Mills' (GIS) Corn Flakes.

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