Fair market or free money?

The California Farm Bureau Federation has asked the federal government to send billions of dollars a year to fruit and vegetable growers in the form of market-loss assistance payments and disaster aid. The money, the Farm Bureau says, would counter “scarce water, high energy costs, unfair trade practices, increased environmental costs and the strong dollar.”

Bob Krauter, spokesperson for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said, “It is basically some assistance when the commodities are under stress and beyond the cost of production.”

The proposal, made before members of Congress two weeks ago, with Chico farmer John Nock representing Butte County, has re-opened a debate that in California has been limited to such staple crops as rice and wheat.

While the Farm Bureau insists price supports—subsidies—are needed to compensate for unfairly low prices on commodities from overseas, government waste-watchers say it’s a hypocritical case of embracing a free market when prices are high and crying for taxpayer support when they’re low.

“Particularly in the case of the crops that have never been supported by the government in the past, it’s alarming … that the farmers are so willing to go to the public trough,” said John Frydenlund, of the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Citizens Against Government Waste.

Frydenlund said that if Congress and the president approve the payments—and he believes they will do so—farmers will end up giving up more than they get.

“Things come with a price, and if they decide they want to be on equal footing,” it’s a slippery slope to the government turning around and fixing prices when it thinks farmers are getting paid too much, Frydenlund said.

But Krauter said cheap, foreign versions of California-grown commodities like peaches, raisins and garlic are squeezing out the state’s farmers. “Foreign companies are not playing by the rules,” he said. “They’re heavily subsidizing imports to the United States to where we can’t compete.”

Krauter said it’s wrong to think of these latest proposals as requests for outright subsidies, since they would kick in only if market conditions were so bad that farmers spent more to produce the crop than they reaped from it. “We’re not talking about price supports,” he insisted. “It’s night-and-day different.”

Frydenlund retorted: “That’s just splitting hairs. It’s still subsidies.”

Many Butte County growers struggle with the idea of getting government money, no matter what the reason. It has been a source of pride, particularly among growers of non-staple crops like almonds and walnuts, that they don’t show up on a subsidy list like their rice-growing brothers.

Tod Kimmelshue, vice president of the Butte County Farm Bureau, said farmers truly want to do business based on what the market will pay—"as long as we’re on a more-level playing field.”

"It’s not something that farmers really want," he said. But until the global marketplace is fair, "our growers should be subsidized to some extent."