But Uncle Sam has provided what some would term a safety net, in the form of farm subsidies. The annual payments help farmers whose livelihood depends on the weather, market prices and — in more recent years — foreign markets where governments heavily subsidize their own agricultural producers to be able to compete in the U.S. market.
Floyd County producers received subsidy payments totaling $14,906,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 1995 and 2011, according to a database developed by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
The EWG has tracked farm subsidy payments for decades, and its most recent database lists Robert W. Roe as the leading recipient in Floyd County during the last 16 years.
Roe is perhaps the epitome of a family farm operator. Though he is retired today, Roe has produced cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat for nearly 50 years on 2,000 acres of land in Morton Bend of the Coosa River west of Rome. He took over the farm from his father after leaving the military in 1964.
“The subsidies are more or less a protection against the world market,” Roe said.
Prices have been better during the last couple of years, he said, so the subsidies have declined significantly. From 1995 to 2011, Roe received $1,342,901 in subsidies — the overwhelming majority of them for cotton crops.
While the government likes to say its subsidy programs exist to preserve the family farm, very few farmers actually are able to take advantage of the programs.
Brent Allen, a former University of Georgia extension agent for Chattooga County who is now located in Washington County, said “it takes a Philadelphia lawyer” to understand all of the USDA programs.
“Most of the payments that the farmers will get are because they have a base for the crop,” Allen said. “There was a time frame and however many acres (of a commodity) they grew during those base acreage years set the base. Whoever is tending that acreage this year will be qualified to get a payment based on those base acres.”
Allen said the programs really do help maintain the stability of the national agriculture program.
“Prices are going to go up and down, demand for crops is going to go up and down, but we need to keep the farmers around and keep them growing food,” Allen said.