Study raises controversy over farm subsidies

More taxpayer dollars may be subsidizing junk food ingredients

ORLANDO, Fla. - On his Sanford farm, Jonathan Morris tends to 40 acres of fruits and vegetables.  He grows what he grows, but he can't grow his business.  While the U.S. Department of Agriculture says fruits and vegetables should make up about half of the food in a typical meal, the USDA's Farm Service Agency does not subsidize farmers like Morris.

"You either make it or break it," he says.

According to a recent study by the Public Interest Research Group, 75 percent of farm subsidies go to just 3.8 percent of U.S. farms.  Those farms tend to be mega farms that grow just a few commodity crops which feed agribusiness.

"You got a guy doing $2 million worth of business, and he's got $2 million in the bank.  He doesn't need surplus money," Morris says. "You got a guy who's working, paying his bills, trying to do everything right.  To me, that's where the money should go, to help you get stronger."

It's too bad he doesn't grow Twinkies.

According to PIRG, 14 of Twinkies' 37 ingredients are made with federally subsidized crops, including corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and shortening derived from soy oils. PIRG says that between 1995 and 2011, $18.2 billion went to subsidize those junk food additives, while only one of the top twenty federal subsidy programs supported a fresh fruit or vegetable. That program subsidized apple growers.

PIRG crunched the numbers and came up with this comparison of subsidies:

  • $18.2 billion for Twinkie ingredients, enough to buy 21 Twinkies for every American taxpayer
  • $635 million for apples, enough to buy just one half of an apple per taxpayer

The farm subsidy laws have been in place since 1935, with some changes in the mid 80's. The laws are aimed, in part, at guaranteeing farmers a certain amount of money to grow a certain amount of crops. 

"If farmers grew whatever they wanted, prices could crash and the market could collapse," said the USDA's Farm Service Agency chief of public affairs, Kent Politsch.

The PIRG study suggests that since the largest commodity producers have the biggest effect on the market, unlike Morris, they tend to be the ones getting the most subsidies.

"There was no use wasting time filling any thing out," Morris says.  "We're not eligible for anything."

The Farm Service Agency was unable to provide a spokesperson for an on-camera interview, but Politsch told Local 6 that farmers who grow fruits and vegetables are producing "a higher value crop."

"There's no need to subsidize a farmer who's growing crops at higher values," he said.

The USDA contends that it has provided 103,000 loans to family farmers totaling $14.6 billion in the past three years.  Family farmers, however, are not always small farmers growing fruits and vegetables like Morris.

Still, he might get some good news soon. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has proposed a new micro-loan program that would serve small farmers who need less than $35,000 in aid. That's exactly what Morris is looking for.

Local banks, he says, have been unwilling to loan anything less than $20,000. He claims the banks have indicated they would rather loan to bigger farms so they can buy out smaller farms like his. Morris says that's not going to happen. He has no plans to abandon his 40 acres in Sanford.

"I'll die farming," he says.  "It's what I do.  It's who you are."

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