Commentator Steve Moore
Commentator Steve Moore - 
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Kai Ryssdal: There are big changes coming to U.S. agriculture policy. The once-every-five-years farm bill is up for debate in Congress this summer — $250 billion covering everything from public nutrition programs to bio-fuel. Oh, and subsidies to farmers, too.

Last night the House Agriculture Committee voted to end federal payments to the wealthiest farmers. Net worth of $1 million or more. That's down from a cutoff of two and a half million the last time round.

The whole House takes up the bill next week. Commentator Stephen Moore says it's a step in the right direction — but just a small one.

Stephen Moore: Thanks to the ethanol subsidy program, millions of acres of corn are being converted into fuel, and many Iowa and Nebraska corn farmers are seeing their profits rise up to ten-fold this year.

Farmers are no longer the dirt poor workers we think about from Steinbeck's classic The Grapes of Wrath.

Official USDA figures show that today the average farmer has income one-third above the national average and a net wealth of just under $1 million — 8 times that of the average American family.

If we really wanted to promote economic fairness, the corn farmers should be writing checks to taxpayers — not the other way around. Yet, the richest one in ten farmers gets 75 percent of the taxpayer handouts. Fortune 100 companies Exxon, Chevron, and Archer Daniels Midland get help too.

What we have here is farm socialism: the government tells farmers what they will grow, on how many acres, and at what price. Farming is now arguably the most subsized industry in America. Many farmers now receive about 30 cents of every dollar earned directly from Uncle Sam. This central planning model is in disrepute all over the world.

Here's a better idea: abolish handouts for multimillion-dollar agri-businesses and direct the dollars to the farmers who temporarily need help.

Senator Lugar of Indiana has proposed a plan to replace $20 billion a year in subsidies and instead create an insurance fund. That fund would dispense aid to farmers with incomes less than $200,000 if their incomes plunge due to bad weather or crop failure.

Federal farm programs should be a safety net of last resort, not an entitlement check for the prosperous and politically powerful. If we can push welfare mothers off the dole, certainly we should stop writing checks to Archer Daniels Midland and Scottie Pippen.

Ryssdal: Stephen Moore is the senior economics writer for the Wall Street Journal's editorial page.