Against the grain

Rice farmers can see the future, and it means less cash.

The Bush administration, saddled with the financial and political implications of the Iraq war and recent hurricanes, will likely have little stomach for handing out subsidies when the Farm Bill comes up for review in 2007.

Perhaps ironically, it’s the Republican legislators who traditionally have been ideologically opposed to crop subsidies, while the Democrats throw money at a broken system rather than reworking it.

Growers who are smart won’t stew about the political winds. Many are already replacing their rice fields with tree crops, even experimenting on the hard soils south of Butte Creek. We think that’s a smart move. Also encouraging, farmers are becoming more and more interested in conservation, thanks to the expected subsidy phase out, rice straw-burning restrictions and, we’d like to believe, a greater awareness of environmental issues.

For growers of a crop that in Butte County saw $351 million in subsidies in the 10-year period ending in 2004, change will be hard.

The News & Review, which has long taken flak for printing lists of subsidy recipients, would never support squeezing the small, family farmer out of business. In Butte County, “price supports” can mean the difference between a grower losing money and barely breaking even. Where the farm subsidy program goes wrong is the multimillion dollar payments to artificially created entities (a single family farm is divided into multiple farms to increase the subsidy) and factory farms—nothing less than corporate welfare.

Furthermore, the current system just isn’t fair. Sure, the global market puts the United States, with its high labor costs, at a disadvantage. But why should growers of commodities such as rice, cotton and peanuts collect checks while equally hard-working farmers of non-subsidized crops fend for themselves in the free market?

Local growers need to plan. Taking rice out of production without replacing it with another income source would hurt Butte County’s economy, which depends on $350 million a year in agricultural revenues. And farmers selling water rights south is another recipe for disaster.

There’s a place for subsidies, but we want to see the system shift to include more money for conservation and a government and industry focus on opening markets overseas so crops will demand higher prices and won’t need to be artificially bolstered by direct subsidy payments.

Come 2007, the playing field will likely be leveled. It’s about time.