Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias It�s unusual to think that one of the factors that may determine who wins the U.S. Senate race between Tim Johnson and John Thune is the weather.

Presently, some South Dakota farmers and ranchers aren�t impressed with the federal government�s plan to pay out $752 million in assistance to drought states.

One South Dakota farmer, in a recent news story, paints a rather vivid picture of what he thinks of the plan.

�How much will it actually bring to South Dakota? It sounds like a lot of money, but it is hardly a Band-Aid,� said Don Hoogestraat, a retired farmer from Lennox.

The assistance is more �like putting out a forest fire with a 5-gallon bucket of water,� he said.

Other farmers think the money will help, especially because offers immediate assistance.

�Cash is king, and it will be available right now,� said Jerry Rubendall, a Mitchell farmer. �This is a great step.�

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week that it will release discretionary money known as Section 32 funds to drought-stricken farmers in 37 states.

Thune traveled the state last Friday to explain the application process.

�There is no higher priority than dealing with this now. We have been hammering away (on the Bush Administration) to impress on them the dimensions of the problem,� said Thune.

Johnson called the USDA announcement nice, but said it would provide only modest help.

�When you pencil that out,� Johnson said of the $752 million, �what that means in real terms given the escalating cost of hay, a South Dakota rancher will only be able to buy about two weeks of feed. That�s just not enough when South Dakota�s winters can last five months.�

It�s rather unfortunate that the drought has become one of the main ag-related issues in the Senate campaign.

We�d rather see the candidates address much broader issues and challenges facing our state�s and nation�s farmers.

For instance: Will there be any family farms � the type that we�ve grown accustomed to here in Clay County and across South Dakota � in existence 20 years from now?

Ag producers are in a uniquely difficult predicament right now. Forget the drought for a second. One reason there are still farmers working the land and raising livestock in South Dakota is the farm subsidy payment system.

Nationally, farm subsidies total about $20 billion a year. And farmers nationwide are growing more and more dependent on them.

Why?

Survival.

There�s something about a drought, however, that we can all agree on. It treats everyone alike.

You can�t say the same about the federal government.

Since the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, farmers have grown more and more dependent on the government. The most dependent are the top 10 percent or 20 percent who receive a disproportionately large share of the subsidies.

It�s rather ironic. Small family farmers in many areas of the country, and no doubt here in South Dakota are being driven out by flat grain prices, kept artificially low in part by government subsidies that encourage overproduction. The more acres of grain a farmer owns, the bigger the subsidy. The subsidy programs also help ensure that when prices are low, the government will help make up the difference.

Last year it cost a farmer as much as 50 cents more to raise a bushel of corn than he received on the market. Huge grain companies take advantage of this situation by purchasing inexpensive corn subsidized by the taxpayer. They then process it and sell it at a profit.

This is an issue that should be receiving more attention from our political candidates. Putting up with a drought is bad enough. No doubt there are some farmers who also wonder how much longer taxpayers will subsidize a system that is helping everyone but the small family farmer it was intended to save.

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