- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2015

The American Farm Bureau Federation said this week that the cost of the average Thanksgiving meal reached its highest amount ever this year, topping $50 for a family of 10. But most Americans might be surprised to know that they also pay for their holiday dinners with their taxes.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just about every staple on a traditional Thanksgiving table — except for the stuffing and turkey — is considered a “specialty crop” that the federal government subsidizes.

Over 300 specialty crops are eligible for federal support under the USDA’s $72.5 million annual Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican and presidential candidate, highlighted the grant program in a special edition of his weekly “waste report.”

Most Americans might expect crops that are “rare, atypical, and thus in need of competitive enhancement” to fall under the USDA’s “specialty crop” grant program, Mr. Paul wrote. But, according to the USDA, “just about everything is ‘special.’”

Some of the supported “specialty” crops are apples, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, peaches, sweet corn, potatoes, green beans, peas, broccoli, grapes, almonds, pears, cherries, carrots and Brussels sprouts.

In an April 2014 blog post, Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack wrote, “Specialty crops make up the bulk of what we eat — all of our fruits and vegetables, tree nuts and dried fruits — as well as things like cut flowers.”

For using millions of American tax dollars to subsidize foods that many of us already buy, meddling with the private market once again, the USDA wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Washington Times highlighting examples of wasteful federal spending.

Spending watchdogs say the crop program is the result of continually ballooning farm bills, starting as a few grants for important U.S. crops and snowballing into political money grabs for farmers.

“The specialty crop program is an example of how government subsidies spread like cancer because of politics. The government first subsidizes farmers of major crops such as wheat and corn, and that has prompted other farmers to lobby for inclusion of their crops. Each major farm bill over the years is bigger than the last one and hands out more different types of subsidies,” said Chris Edwards, a budget analyst at the Cato Institute.

“Things have gotten so bad in this country, even your Thanksgiving dinner is on welfare,” said Ryan Ellis, tax policy director at Americans for Tax Reform.

The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Times.

The program has been supporting specialty crop producers since 2006. Grants can be awarded to a variety of projects, including some types of marketing, travel, consulting, attending conferences, and development of websites or mobile apps.

The grants are not awarded to specific producers, but instead are given to state agriculture agencies to be doled out to producers, nonprofits, and colleges and universities for their specialty crop projects.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the grant program in fiscal year 2015 alone funded 755 projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories.

Of those 755 projects, 22 percent went to marketing and promotion projects, 27 percent went to education projects, 20 percent went to research projects, 11 percent went to pest and plant health projects, 7 percent went to food safety projects, 7 percent went to production projects, and 6 percent went to other types of projects.

The 2014 farm bill provides $72.5 million for the grant program through 2017 and $85 million in 2018.

Altogether, the USDA will hand out $375 million in specialty crop grants over five years under the latest farm bill, though that is less than 0.05 percent of the $956 billion appropriated for agricultural spending through 2024.

Spending watchdogs say agriculture subsidy programs have gotten out of control and have become crutches for the farming industry.

“Specialty crop subsidies are only the tip of the iceberg or, in this case, the wingtip of the turkey,” said Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union. “Consumers and taxpayers shell out for crop insurance, direct subsidies or price supports in much bigger amounts for items like soybeans, wheat, peanuts and sugar, which find their way to the Thanksgiving table in many forms. Even the main course gets costlier because federal mandates divert so much corn into ethanol fuel production that the price of animal feed goes up. That means pain at the cash register as well as payments to the taxman.”

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