The Wrong Kind of Urban Farming

by Nelson Harvey

If you don’t think there’s much farming in New York City, then you’re absolutely right.

But that doesn’t stop millions of dollars in federal farm subsidies from flowing to city residents each year. The map at right is a distribution of individuals living in Manhattan who currently receive farm subsidies, often via “pass-through” arrangements where companies that they own or invest in forward them a slice of the government assistance check.

With the 2007 Farm Bill passed the House and currently under review in the Senate, this graphic highlights the urgent need for reform. Farm subsidies are supposed to support farms when crop prices are low and encourage the survival of small family farms, making the current arrangement seem like a rather perverse use of government funds. According to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the current subsidy structure also heavily favors a small group of companies, with the top 1 percent of beneficiaries receiving 17 percent of funds while the bottom 80 percent receive just 16 percent. As the EWG points out, this is money that could be spent on conservation incentive or nutrition programs.

The problem isn’t just reserved to New York City; in fact, it’s a national one, as this excellent series in the Washington Post clearly illustrates. Much of the wrangling over the 2007 farm bill in recent months has focused on ways to better direct farm subsidies. This is one of those rare questions that unites anti-government libertarians and environmentalists alike. I’m a newcomer to the subject, but the organization Environmental Defense is not, and they’ve got an excellent list of 12 “Fresh Ideas” for reforming farm policy. Make sure your Senator has his priorities straight, before it’s too late!

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