This month the United States Department of Agriculture announced an “historic investment” that will go towards “supporting [the] entire local food supply chain.” The USDA is blessed with an ample amount of time and a great deal of money, which means it must forever be inventing new ways to spend the billions and billions of dollars allocated to it every year; thus Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack offering the investment in order to “give farms and ranches more market opportunities, provide consumers with more choices, and create jobs in both rural and urban communities.”
Thanks for that, Tom. Like nearly everything it does, the USDA’s local food “investment” scheme is as dismaying as was the choice of Tom Vilsack for Agriculture Secretary. Yet this latest attempt at bureaucratic do-goodery is one of the USDA’s least concerning undertakings; in truth, the department has a history of both vicious incompetence, remorseless fraud and sulky hostility towards the constituency—farmers—it is pledged to serve.
The incompetence and fraud are both well-documented; perhaps the greatest combination of the two can be found in the Pigford v. Glickman case. Pigford was a class action lawsuit leveled against the USDA by black farmers who claimed they had been discriminated against while seeking federal loans from the department; the lawsuit quickly ballooned to an enormous number of claimants seeking redress for racial discrimination, which, as the New York Times reported, resulted in USDA employees finding reams of suspicious claims, from nursery-school-age children and pockets of urban dwellers, sometimes in the same handwriting with nearly identical accounts of discrimination.
These are not “suspicious” claims but openly false and fraudulent ones, as any capable, mildly-intelligent adult can immediately discern. One would think that the presence of such claims would give rise to a healthy suspicion: perhaps if a lawsuit invites multiple identical claims, some of them from “nursery-school-age children,” it is worth looking into whether the scope or the scale of the lawsuit, or its vetting process, is appropriate and adequate to the task. The USDA responded to these grim revelations by cheerfully going along with the terms of the settlement: in one instance, they paid out nearly $100 million to sixteen zip codes in which “the number of successful claimants exceeded the total number of farms operated by people of any race;” in one town in North Carolina, “the number of people paid was nearly four times the total number of farms.”
Was there no sensible, principled person within the entire Department willing to put an end to such absurdity? Was there anybody sitting around that might have mounted some kind of aggressive campaign to combat such naked deceit? Don’t count on it. This is the same bureaucracy, after all, that has paid out tens of millions of dollars to dead farmers. Last year alone the department’s whiz kids made over $6 billion in improper payments. Nearly 66% of improper food stamp payments were “agency-caused.” (Luckily, the Food and Nutrition Service only needs a cool $20 million in order to investigate its own fraudulent and inept administrative wing. Thank God we nixed the whole austerity thing.)
It is not mere criminal fraud and lackadaisical stupidity that mars the USDA’s name, but a distinct kind of broad-based pointlessness: there really is seemingly no dumb government action the USDA is incapable of doing. Did you know the department offers home loans? We all know how well government-backed mortgages worked out the first time around, and nothing screams “agriculture” like a thirty-year fixed-rate. You probably weren’t aware, either, that the agency is in the business of alternative energy in Alaska: for the low, low price of $5.6 million, the USDA will get you “three wind turbines and about 100 thermal stoves” far from anywhere you live. And when it’s not busy helping people by their first homes or building energy windmills in Alaskan backwaters, the magnanimous department is singing the praises of “innovative new wood products” and developing “plans for a forthcoming prize competition to design and build high-rise wood demonstration products.” Your tax dollars at work, or whatever it is the USDA does.
These are but a few examples of the USDA’s chronic inability to do things right, or to do wrong things in abundance. You can begin to see why the whole “historic investment” towards local food is rather concerning. As an authentic local food fanatic, I myself am deeply concerned with the USDA’s growing involvement with local food systems: the department is largely unable to do anything without chronic corruption or expensive imprudence, and they are not friendly in the slightest to their own constituency, a fact well-documented by vocal farmers such as Joel Salatin. A while ago I was volunteering at a farmer’s market when a USDA employee made one of her random drop-ins to inspect the vendors for protocol violation. The change in the atmosphere of the place was palpable: farmers visibly stiffened up, appeared nervous, on-edge and uncomfortable at the agent wandering around with her notepad and her thermometer. This was not a representative of what Abraham Lincoln once declared “the people’s Department.” Whatever purpose the USDA was originally intended for, it has become an agency of waste, fraud, trendy and expensive energy projects and, as I saw that day, fear.
The progenitor of the USDA was established in 1862 in order to spread “useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word.” That was it: the entire scope of the department’s existence could be summed up thusly; it was bound, by the fairly simplistic and uncomplicated style endemic to mid-19th-century American political legalese, to disseminate “useful information.” It is hopeless and offensive to argue that even the “most general” sense of agriculture includes wood project “prize competitions,” wind turbines, fraudulent payments and a climate of antagonism and aggression towards the people you are supposed to be serving. Down with the whole mess, I say. If there is one single thing we might do to best serve the interests of American agriculture, it would be to close down the department that unjustly appropriates American agriculture for its own wasteful and dishonest purposes.