But those sorts of numbers barely tell the story of our appallingly immoral agricultural corporatism. Subsidies combined with trade barriers (another term for subsidy) prop up the price of agricultural commodities for consumers at home while hurting farmers abroad. This is repugnant because agriculture is a keystone industry for developing nations and a luxury for developed ones. Hence we keep Third World nations impoverished, economically dependent and politically unstable. Our farm subsidies alone - forget trade barriers - cost developing countries $24 billion every year, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis. Letting poor nations prosper would be worth a lot more than the equivalent amount in foreign aid. But Big Agriculture likes foreign aid because it allows for the dumping of wheat and other crops on the world market, perpetuating the cycle of dependency.
Then, of course, there's the environment. Subsidies savage the ecosystem. One example: There's a 6,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, larger than Connecticut. It's so depleted of oxygen from algae blooms caused by fertilizer runoff that the shrimp and crabs at the Louisiana shore literally try to leap from the water to breathe, imperiling the profitable Gulf fishing industry. Most of the fertilizer comes from a few Midwestern counties that receive billions in subsidies (more than $30 billion from 1997 to 2002, according to the Environmental Working Group).
The full environmental costs are incalculable. If global warming concerns you, consider that American farming is hugely energy intensive. Those energy costs are offset by Uncle Sam, so taxpayers are buying greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, across the U.S., swaths of forests and wetlands have been cleared or drained to make room for farmland that would never earn a buck if not for welfare support. Who knows how much cleaner the air and water would be with those resources intact? And who knows how many more dubious "wetlands" would be free for productive economic development?
There's a lot of romance about the family farm in this country. But that's what it is: romance. Most of the Welfare Kings are rich men - buffalo farmer and CNN founder Ted Turner is one of the biggest. Of course, there are small farmers out there, but they have no more right to live off the government teat than the corner bakery I so loved as a child but that couldn't keep up with the times. We don't have a political system addicted to keeping bakers rich.
Meanwhile, our system - chiefly the Senate, which gives rural states outsized power, and the Iowa presidential caucus, which forces politicians to whore themselves to agricultural welfare - is rigged to prevent real free-market reform.
I'm all in favor of farming when it's economically feasible. And while many of these folks I meet on my adventures are the salt of the earth, I don't see why they shouldn't pull their own weight.