A Secretary for Farmland Security

by Victor Davis Hanson

The New York Times

President Bush’s selection of a new secretary of agriculture, Gov. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, comes as American agriculture is at a dangerous crossroads. Despite government subsidies and technological advancements, the United States could soon become a net importer of food for the first time in about 50 years.

In part because of Nafta and globalization, consumers often find that it is cheaper to eat tomatoes from Mexico or dried fruits from Asia or Africa than what is grown a few miles away. Meanwhile, especially in the fast-growing states of the South and West, medium-sized farmers find that selling their land is more profitable than cultivating it. Here in the San Joaquin Valley, amid some of the richest farmland in the nation, new houses dot the vanishing agrarian landscape.

The Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 proved laughable. Although it was supposed to reduce government interference in agriculture and let farmers make more of their own decisions about what to plant, the law never really succeeded in weaning anyone off anything the government had to offer. The present administration sent $13 billion to roughly 700,000 American farms in 2002.

Apparently the idea behind such subsidies was that globalization had allowed foreign farmers – with inexpensive labor costs, few environmental regulations and little government oversight – to dump cheap produce on the American market. That flood promised not merely increased competition, but the ruin of American agriculture altogether.

Oddly enough, however, some producers that were most hurt by globalization – growers of fresh, processed and dried fruits and vegetables – received almost no subvention, and it is their farms that are most likely to be lost to residential development. Meanwhile, as the dollar falls and the world economy heats up, the market for subsidized American beef and dairy, soybeans, cotton and grains is on the upswing. This development calls into question the need for the billions paid out to profitable American agribusinesses in a time of war and deficits.

As the next secretary takes office, he should consider both the changing role of American agriculture and the consequences of its decline. Subsidies are neither necessary nor desirable. They belie conservative faith in free markets, are distributed inequitably and are fiscally indefensible.

In a time of global environmental interdependence and anxiety over security, we should insist on far more careful screening of imported food from all government agencies, and demand that our most productive farmland not be lost to suburbanization. Agricultural autonomy is not reductionist protectionism, but a way to avoid the type of petroleum dependence that has left us vulnerable to blackmail by illegitimate and dangerous regimes abroad.

Mr. Johanns, who grew up on an Iowa family dairy farm and is a former Democrat, should understand that answers are not to be found simply in more subsidies and huge export incentives to vertically integrated megafarms. Our farming future is far more complex than that. Agriculture is more than just feeding people; it is the historic center of bedrock American social and cultural values.

As he assembles his staff, the new secretary should look to hard-nosed conservative farmers, in and out of government, both Democrats and Republicans, who would find ways to preserve farmland, promote local farmers markets, emphasize sustainable agriculture and rebuild rural communities. In this most dangerous period in our nation’s history, agriculture remains our most precious resource.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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