Fear of farm subsidies cuts

President Bush’s proposed 2006 budget calls for austere cuts, which is unavoidable considering the tax breaks he’s offered to the wealthiest among us. Included in these cuts are the federal subsidies paid to some of America’s farmers, including local rice growers who for years have counted on—and in some cases manipulated—these annual payoffs.

Critics refer to the subsidies as corporate welfare; America’s trade partners say they unfairly tilt the competitive playing field against growers in other nations. The farmers who receive the subsidies say they are necessary in a volatile but essential business that is vulnerable to any number of outside factors, ranging from bad weather to rising fuel costs. Plus they’ve become dependent on them over the years.

The proposed cuts seem modest—about 5 percent—but they will have an effect on a local economy that is bolstered by anywhere from $30 million to $60 million in subsidies annually. There have been efforts over the decades to try to wean the 30 percent of the nation’s qualified farmers off the subsidies. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has tried to do this while serving in a farm state for the past 30 years. But if the Republican president’s cuts are realized, they could spell political trouble for fellow Republicans in America’s farmland districts—though it’s hard to imagine Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico, being damaged enough to lose in a conservative district that has re-elected him for the past 18 years.

There is speculation here that with cuts in subsidies, local rice farmers may find it more attractive, and profitable, to sell their water to interests in Southern California rather than use it to grow crops. That in turn could make subdividing and selling their farmlands for development more attractive as well, which would be a terrible thing to do.

But at this point there is no point in worrying about such scenarios. After all, right now Bush’s proposed budget doesn’t even include the billions of dollars that will undoubtedly be needed to continue our extended military presence in Iraq. While the subsidies are probably safe, maybe the rules of their disbursement will be tightened. And that’s not a bad thing.