Memo from the Blackland Prairie : Obama and the Texas Family Farm

Blackland Prairie. Image from Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Subsistence farming and big agribusiness:
Obama stops the massive subsidies

By Jane Leatherman Van Praag / The Rag Blog / March 18, 2010

I live on and manage our family farm just south of Bartlett, Texas, in the extreme northeast of Williamson County. Since the late 60s when my father was too old to farm the land, we contracted on a “share-basis,” as did many other aging farmers in our locale, with another nearby farmer to keep our soil in cultivation.

This was a great idea for several reasons: it permitted people whose entire lives had been tied to the earth to remain on their property, which they loved, rather than have to sell and move away for the duration of their elder years; it also kept the land truly productive, which is also important to farmers whose pride and responsibility has always been to help feed the world.

This happy transaction becomes magnified when we consider that this area is part of the vast, though diminishing (due to development from urban encroachment) Blackland Prairie, some of the most fertile soils on the planet. Appropriately cornucopia-shaped, the Blackland Prairie starts near the Texas Coast then wends its narrow way up into a small stretch of Canada. The only other place somewhat like it is Ukraine on the other side of the globe.

Meanwhile, this idea also benefited our near-neighbors who continued the actual farming operation. They could afford to take advantage of advancing technology; few realize that a modern tractor sells for between a quarter- and a half-million bucks, with the necessary implements costing about the same. Their children trained at Texas A&M.

What I am saying is that, since the 40s, independent subsistence farming has been a thing of the past; the necessary education and equipment to farm is very expensive. Those of us with relatively small acreages would not have been able to keep up, so we would have been driven out of the marketplace, even had age not been a factor.

Soil conservation was a big issue on the Plains during the Depression. Programs began to help farmers save their land, which in turn would save people in the cities because otherwise they would have nothing to eat. These programs were so successful that our surpluses saved humans everywhere after World War II and since.

These programs included financial compensation to farmers for cooperating in supplying what the market would demand. Down here, for one instance, we leave the tulip growing to the Netherlands and upper Michigan. Here, our row crops are devoted to grains, and depending upon what is planted we can produce more than one harvest each year.

This is the way agribusiness should be. So far, so good, right?

However, whenever we collectively set up an opportunity, “opportunists” soon get a whiff of potential easy money. Thus did agribusiness become identified with Monsanto, Con-Agra, and the like. Big corporations, which have had their way for far too long, driving small-time farm operations like ours out of business wherever they can, buying us out at lowest dollar, in order to increase their holdings. They are the ones who receive massive subsidies, all the while giving us small-time farmers a bad rep.

While I remain very impatient with the Obama Administration on other domestic issues, such as health care, unemployment, and immigration, to name a few, I am — as are all of us small-time farmers — grateful that early on in his first year, Obama stopped those massive subsidies. Before, investors of each Big Agribusiness would receive dollars in the hundreds of thousands and often millions, I would receive between $300-$600, again, depending upon yield.

Earlier this month, I received, from USDA through the Williamson County Farm Services Agency, my customary letter. only this time the content was satisfyingly different, and I quote from it in part:

7 CFR 1400.500 and Handbook 4-PL Paragraph 186 establish the following Adjusted Gross Income (AGO) limitations:

If the average adjusted gross nonfarm income exceeds $500,000 then the applicant is ineligible for Direct and Counter-Cyclical Program (DCP); Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) Program; Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program (SURE); Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish (ELAP); Tree Assistance Program (TAP); Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP); Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP); Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP); Marketing Loan Gains; Loan Deficiency Payments; Conservation Reserve Program (CRP); Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and all other conservation program benefits.

This letter is to advise that you are eligible for the above mentioned program benefits subject to the Average Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) limitations. This determination is based upon your certification of average adjusted gross income (see enclosed copy of form CCC-926) and procedure outlined in Handbook 4-PL Paragraph 186.

I assure you that my non-farm income, adjusted gross or not, falls well below $500,000. Is $500,000 still too generous? Well, since so many factors have to be considered, we’ll have to wait and see. But at least, hot damn, it’s a great new start.

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3 Responses to Memo from the Blackland Prairie : Obama and the Texas Family Farm

  1. Leslie C. says:

    Jane–Given my abysmal ignorance of anything agricultural, thanks for educating me just a little bit. Like about what we have in common with the Ukraine–blackland prairie!
    Do you get any compensation for keeping land out of production in the interest of soil conservation? Or for planting beans (or whatever it is that gives back to the soil)? I do remember learning about “crop rotation” in elementary school in the 1950’s.
    I vaguely remember reading that the new administration was going to change the regulations on agricultural subsidies in the way you indicate. But I had forgotten, so thanks for reminding me and giving specific detail and background. Was this an administrative change, or was legislation necessary?
    I hope another change is that you will be getting more than $300-$600 this year!

  2. Jane Van Praag says:

    Leslie, you’ve asked exactly the right questions, which in turn have helped increase my own understanding; believe me, you’re not the only one who sometimes feels ‘abysmal ignorance’.

    Until about 20 years ago, we did have a program in place aimed toward soil conservation. Since, farmers are under a ‘flex’ program where we can rotate some acreage left fallow, plant legumes, keep it in coastal Bermuda, or plant whatever else, so long as it’s reported correctly; it’s all based on the history of that particular land. There’s another conservation program I’d like to buy into, for establishing wildlife habitat. We’ve kept the bottom lands wild across the creek which meanders through our property but oddly enough, I will have to do some improvements first before I am eligible.

    The changes in ag subsidies we both
    vaguely remember came about through legislation; specifically, the passage of HR 6124 (The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, also referred to as The Farm Bill–there are 15 bill titles–of 2008) was enacted on June 18, 2008when Congress overrode President Bush’s veto, so that it became Public Law No: 110-246. In the Senate, Cornyn and Hutchison both voted yea; not voting were Byrd, Clinton, Domenici, Kennedy, McCain and Obama. In the House, ‘your’ Doggett and ‘my’ Carter voted for it. You can go to Thomas/Library of Congress for a 35-page summary of what is covered for 2008-2012; then this very comprehensive package will expire, or be renewed,
    or revised.

    So I was premature in crediting Obama. Or perhaps he should be credited, but for not voting. All I know for sure is that, until the paper work started showing up at my address, that adjusted gross income figure beforehand had been $2.5 million, rather than the present $500,000. This time, to make sure, I confirmed the earlier figure with the FSA office in Georgetown.

  3. Leslie C. says:

    OK, “fallow” and “legumes” were part of my vocabulary many years ago but have fallen into disuse; thanks for reminding me.

    I am still digesting that 2008 vote. Fascinating. Bush vetoed it but both Cornyn and Hutchison voted for it. Did C. & H.’s anti-government spending ideology overrun the lobbying of big Texas agribusiness? Was there an urban/rural split, or big ag districts vs. small farmer districts? Or something else? Apparently not overwhelmingly partisan.
    By the way, he is not “my” Doggett. I’m one of the lucky ones in Lamar Smith’s district!

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