Ask Maine wild blueberry farmers about this year’s crop and their forlorn response tells the story of an industry under heavy stress.
Field prices have been abysmal over the past two years, only 27 cents a pound last year, causing many small blueberry farmers to stop harvesting and let their fields go fallow. What else are you going to do when costs exceed income? While this year’s harvest is rolling into town daily, blueberry processors and freezer operators are still sitting on inventory from 2016.
What optimism there is struggles with wild blueberry competition from Canada, plus the expansion of cultivated, high-bush blueberry production worldwide.
The Wild Blueberry Commission, the marketing arm of growers, recently requested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture step in and provide monetary support — subsidies — by buying a large portion of the existing blueberry inventory. Those frozen berries would be used in school lunch programs and food banks. The USDA agreed to buy them. The total purchase came to $9.36 million and will reduce the excess inventory that has built up over the past two years.
Last year, the USDA paid over $20 billion in agriculture subsidies in America, running over 60 aid programs. While everyone loves blueberries —“Good and good for you” — how do you feel about tobacco subsidies? Sad but true. There also are annual subsidies for corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice and sugar.
Many of these subsidies are part of government spending linked to food stamp programs. As such, they have become another third rail in Washington. That is to say, sacrosanct.
For decades, right to the present day, there are USDA programs paying farmers not to grow their crops. Another federal subsidy program for “price loss coverage” paid over $3 billion to farmers last year. The “agriculture risk coverage” subsidy paid over $3.7 billion in 2017 to guarantee farmers a specific level of income, based on averages. As recently as 2012, the USDA was paying as much as $10 million a year to farmers who were dead.
An enormous amount of taxpayer-funded payments go to farming conglomerates and well-to-do farming “investors” rather than to family-owned farms. Politics leads to the picking of winners and losers, providing taxpayer-funded subsidies to entities that shouldn’t receive them or don’t need them. Taxpayers don’t subsidize mining, the paper industry, the technology sector or many other industries where market forces and business decisions define success or failure.
Most Maine folks would like to help their local blueberry farmer and see traditional blueberry farming continue here in Hancock County and elsewhere in the state. And $9.36 million seems a drop in the bucket compared to expenditures in other farming enterprises, such as the $106 billion that has been bestowed on the corn-ethanol industry.
But it’s worth asking: Is this a proper role of government? Should bureaucrats and politicians be choosing who gets taxpayer handouts and who does not? Our country is over $21 trillion in debt. Is anyone paying attention to the interest payments alone on this liability?
Federal subsidies are your money being doled out to winners of someone else’s choosing. We’re glad that the blueberry industry locally will receive relief. But perhaps we all should simply eat more wild blueberries instead of relying on government to help the industry succeed. The government, after all, cannot give something to someone not first taken from someone else.