Steve Chapman

Most farmers, in fact, manage with a minimum of federal help because they raise commodities that don't get subsidies. The great majority of government payments go to producers of just five crops: corn, wheat, soybean, rice and cotton. Yet if you go to the grocery store, you will find racks filled with potatoes, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes, lettuce, nuts and carrots, grown without being heavily fertilized with tax dollars.

Here's how the market in those items works: Farmers plant the crops, harvest the crops and sell the crops. If things go well, they earn a profit. If not, they don't.

Those farmers with a knack for making money stay in business and prosper. Those who lose money go bust. It resembles most of the other businesses in America -- with the notable exception of the rest of agriculture.

We really have two agriculture systems in this country. One is based on generous federal subsidies (as with corn and wheat) or strict federal control of production and imports to keep prices high (as with sugar and dairy products). The other relies on open markets, the free interplay of supply and demand, the usual "creative destruction" of a capitalist economy, and the absence of guarantees.

Both produce huge amounts of the commodities we need. Both provide a good living to farmers. But one costs taxpayers billions of dollars a year, and the other doesn't. Now, which approach sounds better? And why do we insist on using an inferior model when we have a superior one available?

Farmers who cherish their federal aid regard any effort to cut it as a scorched-earth strategy that will leave devastation behind. But really, it's just pulling weeds. And as any farmer knows, pulling 20 percent of your weeds doesn't do much good.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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