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Broken Government

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Field of Schemes: The Costs of Shallow-Loss Farming Programs

June 18th 2012

wheat fields

Shallow-loss programs are costly: Depending on structure and crop prices, these programs could cost the taxpayer as much as or more than the direct payments program they would replace, averaging as much as $8 to $14 billion a year over the next five years.

Shallow-loss programs amount to a new entitlement: Payments would be automatically triggered by revenue shortfalls and would be linked to average revenues over the past five years. So, when prices and yields increase, payment triggers will also increase, creating a new, partially disguised entitlement program that locks farmers into near-record incomes at the taxpayer’s expense.

Shallow-loss programs based on farm-level yields create incentives for the wasteful use of economic resources by buying down deductibles associated with federal crop insurance: Farmers would reap the benefits of record crop yields and prices. However, because a high percentage of revenues are guaranteed, farmers may adopt more risky farming techniques.

The Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimates for shallow-loss programs assume that recent historically high prices will be sustained: If corn, wheat, soybean, rice, and cotton prices return to the average levels observed between 1996 and 2011, however, program costs will balloon. A county-based program would cost taxpayers between $8.4 and $13.98 billion, depending on the rate of reimbursement. The Stabenow-Roberts shallow-loss proposal would likely cost taxpayers between $5 billion and $7 billion, depending on the mix of farm-based and county-based programs.

Shallow-loss programs will perpetuate the federal farm program tradition of giving the majority of subsidies to farms that do not need them in the first place: Shallow-loss subsidies, like direct payments and crop insurance subsidies, would be tied to the amount of land that households farm. Consequently, the largest and wealthiest farmers enjoy built-in buffers in the form of substantial equity in their farm operations (debt-to-asset ratios average less than 9 percent in the entire American agricultural sector). These individuals would receive the lion’s share of shallow-loss subsidy payments.

Vincent H. Smith is a professor of economics at Montana State University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, from where this article is adapted.

Bruce A. Babcock is a professor of economics at Iowa State University.

Barry K. Goodwin is the William Neil Reynolds Professor of Agricultural Economics at North Carolina State University.


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