Life without Farm Subsidies

When the House passed a massive farm bill last month, supporters justified ongoing subsidies as a “safety net” for family farmers. But a story in the New York Times this morning on the New Zealand dairy industry shows that farmers can survive and thrive in a free market without subsidies.

The story begins by describing how technologically sophisticated the country’s export-oriented dairy industry has had to become to meet global competition.

Dairy farming in New Zealand was not always this sophisticated. But ever since a liberal but free-market government swept to power in 1984 and essentially canceled handouts to farmers — something that just about every other government in an advanced industrial nation has considered both politically and economically impossible — agriculture here has never been the same.

The farming community was devastated — but not for long. Today, agriculture remains the lifeblood of New Zealand’s economy. There are still more sheep and cows here than people, their meat, milk and wool providing the country with its biggest source of export earnings. Most farms are still owned by families, but their incomes have recovered and output has soared.

For more on the lessons we should learn from New Zealand’s successful reforms, check out a Free Trade Bulletin we published in 2005 titled, “Miracle Down Under: How New Zealand Farmers Prosper without Subsidies or Protection.” The Kiwi example also featured prominently in an online debate I had in May with the chief economist of the American Farm Bureau.

The New Zealand dairy industry and our own fruit and vegetable sectors prove that farmers can thrive without government subsidies and trade protection. Yet it looks like we will be saddled for another five years with an expensive and anti-market farm bill.