When balderdash meets buncombe

When balderdash meets buncombe

To paraphrase and to twist an old Top 40 radio line, the coronavirus pandemic-related public policy misses just keep on comin’ on.

As the Tribune-Review reports it, “the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture will invest $10 million to acquire surplus produce from farmers across the state to funnel through charitable food systems.”

The only problem is it appears to be the latest in a long line of government programs seeking a problem for a solution. (And even then, the solution would not be economically sound.)

As state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding characterizes the program:

“If there’s anything worse than the waste of fresh, local food and the labor of love from Pennsylvania farmers, it’s the hunger that more than 2 million Pennsylvanians are facing every day as we fight Covid-19.”

“This is $10 million in relief for Pennsylvania farmers who have lost markets but have not swayed in their commitment to nourishing our commonwealth,” he continued. “It’s $10 million in fresh, local food to go on the plates of families who were unsure of where their next meal would come from.”

Ah, beneficent government rides to the rescue again, eh? And what’s even better is that this government program is a twofer – farmers and families are being helped in these tough pandemic times, right?

But there’s a wee bit of major problem here. For you see, a number of farmers have told the Trib that there’s not much fruit and produce excess.

In fact, one Indiana county farmer says there’s no surplus.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, “things are selling, people are canning and freezing,” he says. “Vegetables are selling like crazy this year.”

As for the rare “excess” of produce, the farmer says he already works directly with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Then there’s the orchard general manager who puts an even finer point on the issue. He also tells the Trib that “surplus produce” hasn’t been very common this year.

First, there was the cold spring that left crops several weeks behind, he says. Then there was a heat spell that shortened the ripening process of those crops from their leisurely three weeks to about three days. Then, he says, drought conditions set in.

There’s a program nuance here:

The $10 million “investment” is split — $5 million for dairy and the balance split among fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs. The purchases happen under the auspices of a contract with “Feeding Pennsylvania,” which is funded from federal dollars obtained through the CARES Act.

As we’ve noted before, the Ag Department has been throwing money right and left at the commonwealth’s dairy industry. Heck, it even gave one producer a boat load of money to open a creamery on the taxpayer dime and even to add more dairy cows. It spends tens of thousands of dollars to “connect” other producers with potential buyers. What, the internet does not exist?

Do remember that such government subsidies have perpetuated a vicious cycle of incentivizing dairy farmers to produce product far in excess of demand, leading them to cry for price supports (in excess of the price supports they long already have received), which leads to even more production.

Oh, by the way, the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise for the dairy industry with milk sales that long had been waning suddenly waxing (if not bordering on skyrocketing).

But here’s the bottom line:

One would think that sound public policy demanded that state agriculture officials would have known about the dearth, not a glut, of produce before proceeding with such a program.

One would think that sound public policy would have demanded that those state officials recognized the upturn in dairy sales, too.

The fact that they appear to have not makes us wonder what this program really is all about, not to mention if the money will be spent anyway because, surely, someday this “problem” will be fixed by this government-created “solution.”

After all, when balderdash teams up with buncombe, all things are possible, right?

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).