Farming is difficult, grueling work that is essential to our economy and our very existence as a species.
On top of that, most farmers operate on thin profit margins far from the bounty of giant agribusiness. They are beholden to the vagaries of weather and the twists and turns of the global economy, and unforeseen difficulties can lead to the sale of local farmland to developers or corporations.
Therefore, it is appropriate for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release nearly $200 million to Washington farmers who lost crops due to natural disasters in 2020 and 2021. The grant, announced last week, is part of approximately $6 billion in disaster relief for farmers and will be paid through a new Emergency Relief Program to offset lower yields and value losses.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said: “Last year’s extreme heat wave and drought was devastating for our farmers and ranchers — in the face of a worsening climate crisis, the federal government needs to step up for the Washington state growers and producers who keep our shelves stocked. . . . I’m glad we could bring back some badly-needed federal dollars to help our farmers and ranchers during a really tough time.”
The aid is necessary, but it also raises several questions about politics in this country.
One is whether critics who recklessly throw around the word “socialism” will apply it to this situation.
Of course, “socialism” is grossly misapplied in American discourse. Merriam-Webster defines it as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”
Few people in this country advocate for the collective ownership of production and distribution, but any social program designed to provide assistance for Americans is decried as being socialist. Aid to farmers is not socialism, but it represents the kind of program that is criticized when it is directed toward cities.
Another related issue is the fact that subsidies to farmers ballooned under President Trump throughout his failed trade war with China.
After Trump imposed tariffs on some Chinese goods, the United States’ economic rival responded in kind. The result was diminished markets for much U.S. agriculture, and the federal government responded with payments to offset the impact. Federal subsidies to farmers went from just over $4 billion in 2017 to more than $20 billion in 2020.
That doesn’t mean that all farmers were bailed out by the federal government or that all farmers needed assistance. But a government policy that requires $20 billion in annual mitigation payments can only be viewed as a failure.
And yet we have buried the lead. With a $6 billion disaster relief program aimed at farmers, there is reason to question where it will end. Climate change delivered record temperatures through Washington last year, including a day that reached 115 degrees in Vancouver.
As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports: “Temperature changes can cause habitat ranges and crop planting dates to shift and droughts, and floods due to climate change may hinder farming practices.”
Those practices already have been hindered by a changing climate, and evidence suggests that the impact will only grow over time.
Helping farmers to continue providing food for our families will require vast attention to climate change.