Real Farmers Have To Be Real Smart


Even though I spend a lot of time growing stuff and raising animals, I am an unreal farmer. A real farmer spends about half the year farming and the other half up at the FSA office trying to figure out how to cultivate the government. Cultivating the government takes real brains. I did not realize that until I received a yellow card in the mail last week. It was from the FSA. Even unreal farmers get notices from the FSA. Here is a list of things on it that I could not comprehend:

Direct and counter cyclical payments (DCP)

Acreage Crop Revenue Election (ACRE)


Supplemental Revenue Assistance (SURE)

The De Mimmis waiver

Risk Management Purchase (RMPR)

Acreage Reporting deadlines

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE)

Unmarked Map Layouts

All that on a three inch by five inch card. Little explanation was included because real farmers know what these mysteries are all about. Or at least they better, because behind DCP and ACRE and SURE and RMPR and CRP and SAFE lurks plenty of taxpayer money for the farmer who knows how to cultivate these acronyms without telling any lies, or at least not any big ones. The Washington Post calls it harvesting cash instead of crops.

These are not by far the only programs that farmers can wring money out of if they are smart. The most mysterious one for me is the loan deficiency payment program (LDP). Real farmers have patiently explained LDPs to me any number of times. While they are explaining, I think I understand and nod, but two days later when I try to explain it all to someone even less a real farmer than I am, my mind goes blank. LDPs seem to happen when someone in the government, perhaps in consultation with God or his designated archangel in charge of agriculture, sets a pretend price for corn. Then when the real price falls below or above that, there are formulas the smart farmer can use to borrow against it until he goes broke. But don’t take my word for that. To me, LDP might just as well stand for “lingering dark puzzle.”

There is also something called EQIP. I don’t know what that stands for, but among other things, it pays out money to animal factories to keep them from flushing manure into waterways. Another subsidy pays dairymen to slaughter their cows. I don’t know if it has an acronym. KILL might work. The idea here is that if enough cows are slaughtered for meat, the price of milk will go up. Instead, the price of meat goes down. Dairymen slaughter their least productive cows, of course, and as soon as they can, replace them with ones that produce more milk.

The most confusing subsidy to me involves federal crop insurance. I have tried to find out how the coverage works but can’t. Some private insurance companies are making a fortune on it according to various critics. Henry Waxman, the congressman who is looking into the matter, says, and I quote, “federal crop insurance is a textbook example of waste, fraud and abuse in federal spending.”

There is also a payment to farmers that I refer to by the acronym W-E-L-F-A-R-E. It is not much bandied about, but the reason farming has so far escaped the economic crunch of recession is that the government just gives landowners or renters of farm land so much money per acre with absolutely no strings attached. All the recipients have to do is keep on breathing. Trying to find out how much an individual farmer gets is difficult. The government does not have to obey the Freedom of Information Act on this one, which shows even FIA is a farce.

Taxpayers aren’t paying enough attention to the March of the Agricultural Acronyms. I’d love to do a survey. I’ll bet even money that most of us don’t know what FSA stands for. I thought I did, but I was wrong. That just shows how dumb an unreal farmer can be. Do you know what FSA stands for?

PS: I ran one version of this essay in my weekly newspaper column last week. So far the people who have commented all say they don’t know what FSA stands for. I’ll give you a hint. It used to be called ASCS, but I never knew for sure what those letters stood for either.


Amen, John. I know that “deep down visceral reaction” very well. And I have been ranting for years about the dubious promises of an “education.” What will happen when almost everyone or even half the people have a college degree, as the educational establishment so fervently wishes? Won’t mean a thing then, for sure. Gene

I’m very late to the party here, but I just wanted to say this to Nate:

You seem like a nice guy with your heart in the right place but you’re overlooking some very basic problems with the whole idea.

1. As pointed out by another commenter, that money isn’t yours, it is all extorted from someone else who felt they had a good use for it.

2. There is no way for you, your co-workers, or your “superiors” to know more about our farms than we do. (and we’ll resent it if you try to find out ;-)) These things are unique like snow flakes. “One size fits all” never fits all.

3. Even if #s 1 & 2 were not so, the very system selects for people who are skilled at gaming a bureaucracy, managing connections, and milking subsidies, rather than planning crop rotations, managing pastures, and milking cows. All the good intentions in the world aren’t going to change that.

I wish I had the words to explain to you the deep down visceral reaction I (and I think some others) have to some of your words; NRCS DC, filter strip program, support pament, LDP… Fear, resentment, worry, border-line panic, ice-water-in-the-belly… I get those little cards in the mail too, and have long since stopped even looking at them. They’re bad for my peace of mind and my digestion.

PS. I feel for you on the education front, they’ve been selling that “a college education means a good job and financial success” line for a long time. I was taken in by it 25 years ago and it’s still going strong.

This situation is a catch-22 for me … I don’t like the subsidies, but in the case of best practices (conservation) I think I prefer the carrot (payments) to the stick (fines/harassment). Unfortunately not every farmer/gardener cares to educate himself about creation care and will plow up to the creek bank until he falls in … in which case we all lose. This ain’t no utopia!

Teresa Sue Hoke-House June 7, 2010 at 5:52 pm

I just wanted to tell Gene and all my fellow readers I have enjoyed reading all you had to say. You all always make me put on my thinking cap. Going offline for the summer, just too much work to do. Have a great summer.

I just want to know where the picture for this blog came from!!?? It’s priceless … s that really a 3-wheel tractor??!!

Thank you Paul. Our version of the Jolly Roger has a hand plow over crossed pitchforks.

Paul Griepentrog June 4, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Well Amos your pirate statement hits closer to home than you think. S510 the food safety bill in the senate states that anyone offering up food without having complied with all the international protacols, Codex, HACCP, and GAP (good agricultural practices as determined by UN Codex committee)would be quilty of smuggling because the product would be mislabeled/misbranded. These protacols are many and varied. But let’s say you couldn’t come up with your records and samples from a certain batch of composted sheep manure, that would be all it would take.

Both FDA and USDA make the presumption of authority that any item offered for sale constitutes interstate trade giving them regulatory authority, thus requireing liscensing and inspection of all farms producing food (food being anything consumed by man or animal). However a presumption only stands if left unrebutted, the National Organization for Raw Materials has prepared a rebuttel to be place on the federal register. is the link to comment on the proposed rule making that would invade every backyard producer engaged in what you are advocating Amos. NORM will be posting the rebuttel and link on it’s site as well. Hey I always wanted to be a pirate, wonder if I can use a chicken as a substitute for a parrot?

I should also add that the FSA and NRCS (and extension folks too) that we have dealt with over the years have always been helpful and willing to bend over backwards to try and help. The sad fact is that movement towards turning dairy farming into a contract business like hogs and poultry is very much under way and the small producers will be ground to dust under this monster. The only answer I see is to mount a guerilla war against big ag, direct marketing all that we can, WITHOUT GOVERNMENT PERMISSION, and undercut, wherever possible, our current food system. This is pirate farmer time, make a fight or die off slowly as big ag and their government bedfellows slowly strangle our market access.

Paul Griepentrog June 4, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Why do farmers that plant GMOs get lower rates on their federal crop insurance?

Nate, your heart is in the right place. The problem is that when people are given money, as opposed to earning it by making wise decisions based on current market realities, ecological realities and good stewardship principles, they wind up following the money. No government agency can make as good a decision as the intelligent, well-educated (not necessarily book learning but knowledgeable about animals, weather, crops and the land) person who lives on and loves his/her farm. And while many who work for the government are well-meaning like you, others are petty tyrants who insist on following the book even when it’s stupid. Those farmers who have gotten so big and are now in financial trouble did so in most cases because they followed the money to the detriment of their bank accounts, soil and animals. Bigger is not necessarily better. In fact in many case, bigger is “worser”. If people could learn to be content with “enough”–with land of a size they could manage, with no more animals than the land can support, with crop yields that are reasonable, with all the joys of hands-on farming and family participation–this old world and all of us would be much better off! Please go back and reread Gene’s books, share them with your colleagues and superiors; who knows, you might just start a quiet revolution in the halls of the FSA.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House June 4, 2010 at 5:59 am

With all due respect to Jan and Nate, I feel people should be able to figure out what to do on their own. Common sense should be used, and developed. Mistakes will be made. Hopefully those same mistakes will teach a lesson. It’s what is called life, and in my opinion, the less government in my life, the better.

Ten years ago at work I listened to a farmer complaining that he was limited to giving his children $10,000.00 before they would have to claim the money on taxes. I told him to complain to as many taxpayers as possible, because that was the only way we were going to stop subsidies to wealthy people. He became very quiet.

I have a neighbor who owned the second largest computer distributorship in the U.S., which he sold in the mid nineties for a rumored $43 million. One of the first things he did was buy around 20 farms, which he now cash rents, because he lives in Montana now. He runs a bed and breakfast called Elkhorn View Lodge near Clancy, Montana (check out the website) . Those farms guarantee him a rent subsidy for as long as he owns them. This is why Americans are sometimes called sheep with money.

Gene, if you ever decide to visit the Temple of Tolerance in Wapakoneta, I told Zender you should also visit Manchester farms, just to the west of Roundhead and east of New Hampshire. It sort of looks like the old North Fork place from the Dallas series (long, tree-lined lane). It used to be the largest recipient of subsidies in Auglaize county. I tell farmers that the current system rewards people who were born wealthy (and/or married well), and every year the outer layer of the onion gets peeled off (which is the underfinanced people), and sometime in the future they will be on that outer layer.

Keep writing about this, Mr. Logsdon. If enough people care, things can change. Farm subsidies are much more damaging than welfare ever was. It is congealing money/land into the hands of a few.

Paul Griepentrog June 3, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Dear Nate,
Sorry but you didn’t give them anything, that money belongs to “we the people” including your salary. There would be no need for payments at all if the Secretary of Agriculture complied with the law and provided parity prices in the marketplace. is the link that will explain parity

Mr. Logsdon. I am a huge fan… and an employee of the Farm Service Agency. Reading your post felt worse than being called ugly. It’s true, the government serves up an ever-changing buffet of strange acronyms of programs that solve problems that do not exist anymore (we haven’t paid corn LDPs in YEARS)and lots of the money goes to a small number of very asset-rich farmers…

But just in the past few weeks, I signed-up a small farmer into a filter strip program that will keep his soil from eroding into the Great Lakes, I gave a milk support payment that will help a family with an 80-cow dairy buy groceries, and yes, I gave tens of thousands to farmers who probably do not need the money to stay in business. But you know, Mr. Logsdon… the funny thing is (and I hate justifications, but sometimes they come in handy) those big farmers have gotten so big that even the $20,000 & $40,000 Direct Payment are a cash equivalent to a flea bite for them. They are so heavily mortgaged and so reliant on corporate agribusiness that government money will not be enough to save them. 20 years ago, USDA might have kept that SOB farming a square mile of corn and soybeans down your Ohio road in business during a down cycle…but now that his son has 3,000 acres and millions in depreciating equipment and millions in debt… we aren’t going to be able to help. It’s that natural progression you talk about in your writing that I so completely admire. You’ve probably just gotten a little impatient. I have too.

Please. Go to your local USDA Service Center… ask the NRCS DC (acronyms, ahoy!) to explain the Conservation Security Program. Do not leave until she/he does to your satisfaction. USDA is trying some amazing things with linking payments to environmental stewardship activities. And please, next time you think of government, imagine how hard it is to balance the taxpayer concern of getting something for their money and the ‘dadgummit, you aren’t telling me how to run my farm’ talk we get from farmers. I am in my twenties and this job is the best (and seemingly only) chance I’ve had to go home to the family farm (500 acres of dry beans, wheat, alfalfa, and sweet corn that must surely be better than anything in Ohio- if a few weeks later) while paying off my expensive education that previous generations promised would be our golden ticket. In the meantime, please remember that your government is made up of people. We are getting better. We’ve been reading Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson and You and we are getting better.

    Nate, excellent letter and I nod enthusiastically to everything you say. It also confirms my worst fears—that land prices are going to collapse as they did in the early eighties. I know another FSA employee personally who is like you. Whenever I write snide stuff about FSA I am aware that I am hurting her and your feelings. I am sorry. I know only one way to counterattack bad government— with humor. Gene Logsdon

I have mixed feelings about all this. I’m not in favour of big, bloated bureaucracies, and I’m sure abuse is rampant, but on the other hand, what is wrong with a bit of a hand now and then, especially if it is for some greater good, like environmental issues?

Here in Canada, they’ve figured out that fuel stored in buildings is correlated with buildings burning down. So they’ll pay up to 1/2 the cost of building a fuel storage facility that is at least three metres from any other building. They’ll also pay 1/2 the cost of fencing that keeps animals out of streams. These seem like noble, reasonable things for the government to support, so where’s the harm?

But, like Amos, we’re just about to pack it in. The place goes on the market this week. We were trying to make inexpensive farmland available through collaborative ownership, and we just couldn’t find enough people to pay for the farm. Right idea at the wrong time, perhaps? (

Teresa Sue Hoke-House June 3, 2010 at 1:26 pm

@ Amos Turtle- Sorry to hear about your situation. It makes me very sad that small family farms are hamstrung by big biz farms and it make me so very, very angry how the government manipulates people’s greediness with their welfare farming policies. We live on the WA/ID border, actually live on the WA side but have 20 acres on the ID side, we could do all the paperwork and say we’re a “tree farm” and get subsidies, but we want nothing to do with the government handouts/control. I will keep you and yours in my thoughts and prayers. BTW, thank you for you and your family’s effort to farm organically w/o government money. Not many that are that brave.

If they would kill off the farm subsidy programs, the price of land (and rent costs) would drop like a rock. When you look at the amount some farmers receive it is obvious that their true “profit” comes from Uncle Sam. We are a small struggling farm, today the wife and son took in a load of scrap so that we can buy fuel to finish planting our organic soybeans (which we have a hard time selling due to the collapse of most organic markets). We probably won’t survive another year but you won’t hear Farm Bureau and their types running around crying about the loss of another small organic farm, our farm will get auctioned off to some mega-dairy that is in tight with a bank and Uncle Sam.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House June 3, 2010 at 6:59 am

Well, it all fits in with the USDA,or as it’s know by at my house, UNITED STUPID DUMB ASSES.

The person that rented our farm land before we bought it was apparently signed up for everything. The local FSA was very persistant about keeping us in their system. I went down to their office and tried to understand just what it was we were “already enroled in.” The way I understood it, they would pay us $76 a year because 7 years before-hand the person renting our land did NOT plant barley. I even asked, “So you want to pay me NOW because someone else DIDN’T plant barley way back then?” “YES!” said the lady with the big smile. We were young, and dumb, and mightily distracted with building a house by hand and raising our three toddlers so we just went along with signing the paper they handed us. We had a lot to learn…

We signed papers and received $76 for a couple of years. We eventually decided we weren’t comfortable with being enroled in a program we didn’t believe in or understand, and it was all just a hassle anyway, so we started to ignore the little yellow cards that came in the mail. All of a sudden we started getting hand-signed letters and big yellow packets of stuff urging us to sign before the deadline. We ignored these. Then we received letters stating that the FSA was more than willing to overlook our missing the deadline if we signed NOW. Creepy.

We called the office to explain that we were no longer interested in participating in these weird crop programs and they assured us they would keep us in their “system” in case we changed our minds. Then we got a notice that stated we would have to apply for inspection and approval if we intended to do anything different, like logging, to our forested acres. That really stopped us in our tracks. Back to the FSA office to tell them in no uncertain terms that we wished to be removed from their “system” and that they had no right whatsoever to monitor our forested OR crop acres because we hadn’t signed anything for YEARS!

We still get the little yellow card in the mail.

Foolish Stupid Activity would about cover it! Some people never learn–tinkering with the law of supply and demand just makes a bigger mess. I was thinking tonight while we were milking that our cow would never make it in the “production” world. She’s a smaller than average Jersey and her bag conformation isn’t the greatest, but she gives a steady 2-3 gallons of milk every day (plus whatever her calf takes) on plain old grass pasture and a little grain. In fact, we just cut her back to four pounds of grain a day because she’s getting fat. Seems to me that a herd of cows like ours would negate the need for cash handouts; when they are that thrifty on such low inputs, you could probably make a little money!

To steal a phrase from you Gene, “We have come to a pretty pass.” In our immediate area most of the small dairies are now gone, replaced by more “efficient” milk factories that really understand how to hoover up the farm payments. The closest milk factory to us received over 1.5 million greenbacks for manure storage facilities alone.
Just like everything else in our economy, small programs designed to help small, family owned businesses have morphed into support for industrialization. A quicker route to Fascism, in my book.

Paul Griepentrog June 2, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Ah yes, the never ending saga of vegetable soup farm payments and susidies. Previous owner of this farm was signed up for everything there was. FSA sent me a big brown packet of materials and told me to sign them and they would explain it later. They came in handy for starting fires, as only a fool would enter into a contract without knowing the terms. Never took farm payments and never will. We own the farm and have no debt, doesn’t get any more real than that.

Wow. And I thought I was a Real Farmer. I actually have that on my website somewhere. But I don’t take subsidies from the government, I don’t get welfare or social security or this or that, or anything with an acronym.

I expect my livestock to pay for their own keep, and price them accordingly. That seems pretty simple and commonsense to me, but I had to explain this concept to a farmer today, and am still astonished that I had to.

~ Ronda

Farm Service Agency.

Hey- thanks for pointing this out. I’ve been out of work since November and now I’m thinking we ought to sell the house, buy a property, and sign up for the free dough. It would sure solve my job problem.

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