Public Opinion on Farm Subsidies

By Matthew Yglesias

Tom Laskaway revisits a little discussion we had a while back (me, him, me) about public opinion and agricultural subsidies, with help from a more detailed survey from World Public Opinion. Turns out that Americans have communitarian ideas about this that aren’t well reflected in current policy. Voters say subsidies for large agribusiness firms (basically the only kind we give out) should go:


But they strongly support the idea of subsidies for small farmers:


For what it’s worth, in my role as someone who likes tasty food I’m certainly not averse to heading down to the farmer’s market to buy some tasty items from a local small-scale farm. But when it comes to the public policy issues, I’m pretty dubious that all the different virtues come together so tightly. If we’re talking about redirecting farm subsidies, I think it’s much more important to focus on what activities we’re subsidizing than on what scale of enterprises we’re subsidizing. The important thing would be to try to make subsidies promote public health and environmental goals. But if someone finds a business model that involves doing that on a very large scale, I don’t see a compelling reason to discourage him.


3 responses to “Public Opinion on Farm Subsidies

  1. The notion that we subsidize small farmers is a romantic one. About 2 1/2% of Americans make their living as farmers. Do we really think that our young people are going to choose farming as a career so they can work hard , long hours for less than minimum wage because there is a potential subsidy?

  2. It may be a romantic idea to subsidise small farmers, but I’d far rather subsidies go to them then to big agribusiness. And clearly, that’s the majority opinion. Farm subsidies are yet another example of the power of lobbyists and America’s corporate welfare (because god forbid welfare goes to poor people). And Americans pay twice, through their tax dollars and also through the increased prices that result.

    And whilst scale may not be the problem per se, many (if not most) of the environmental and health problems around industrial agriculture result directly from the size of farms. Until that changes, size is a pretty good proxy of impact.

  3. The subsidy issue has a much more deeply embedded impact than (dis)incenting young people on a conscious level. The current state of subsidies disproportionately favors large, industrialized farming operations. That unbalanced support increases the entry and operating costs of small farmers, as a percentage of total operations, over their subsidized counterparts. In turn, the larger operations are able to sell their products at lower costs, further disadvantaging small farmers. Obviously larger operations are naturally able to gain an edge by greater scale, but smaller systems can usually find niche markets, or set themselves apart in quality or specialty. But subsidies seem to widen the cost gap so large that smaller farmers are inequitably burdened.
    The point in shifting the direction of subsidies is to remove artificial barriers to small farmers – the idea being that it is, in fact, a viable occupation.
    And to PeterC: Yes, many young people are choosing farming as a career, and not for the reasons you’ve offered. Look around – sustainable agriculture programs are popping up at universities across the country. Local food markets, CSA’s, and other similar programs are growing quickly. Here in NC, the small organic farms have gotten more applications for employment than ever before.

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