Farm Subsidies Benefit Landowners

Almost half of America’s farmland is operated by someone other than the owner. Critics of farm subsidies often point to examples of famous wealthy landowners receiving handouts as a reason to end the federal government’s agriculture gravy train. Notable recipients have included Ted Turner, Larry Flynt, Charles Schwab, and numerous members of Congress.

While policymakers justify their support for farm subsidies in the name of “protecting farmers,” a new academic study describes how landowners are often the real winners. Farm subsidies get “capitalized” into the price of farm land, pushing up land prices. As a result, those farmers who lease land from landowners at the inflated prices end up having a substantial share of their subsidy benefits effectively canceled out.

From the paper:

In all, the results confirm that government payments exert a significant effect on land values. The (marginal) rates of capitalization suggest that in the current policy context, a dollar in benefits typically raises land values by $13-$30 per acre, with the response differing substantially across different types of policies. This response certainly suggests that agents expect these benefits to be sustained for some time. In terms of the implications for the distribution of farm program benefits, our results confirm that a substantial share of the benefits is captured by landowners.

The authors’ conclude that the rhetoric exhibited by supporters of farm subsidies doesn’t always match the reality:

Policy rhetoric often justifies Farm Bill expenditures with the argument that impoverished farmers are in need of governmental support to remain in business. This view is pervasive outside of Washington. For example, consider the annual “Farm Aid” events intended to draw attention to the plight of the American farmer. Our analysis challenges this view. We demonstrate that land owners capture substantial benefits from agricultural policy. This is particularly problematic given that in many cases land owners are distinct from the farmers whose plight we are told we should be concerned with.

See this Cato essay for more on agriculture subsidies.