Bison industry’s bailout request goes too far

As if Ted Turner needs another $20 million.

The multi-billionaire stands to be one of the beneficiaries of a proposal to have the federal government buy $10 million in bison meat to help bison farmers weather the effects of Sept. 11. The measure is included in the Democratic version of the economic stimulus bill currently before the Senate, and bison bailout’s sponsor, North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad, says he’d be even happier with $20 million.

Turner and other gentleman farmers spawned the U.S. buffalo industry as a hobby in the mid-1980s. Many poorer farmers have since entered the industry and, missing the first lesson of economics, ran up the supply of meat faster than U.S. and European market demand could absorb it. Buffalo herds are still growing at about 20 percent each year. Meanwhile, as recently as April 1999 the North American Bison Cooperative – which includes Turner’s 1.4 million acres and processes 65 percent of the nation’s buffalo – spent only $20,000 annually on marketing.

Turner, to his credit, persuaded the organization to increase that figure to $2.5 million per year. But first, the cooperative begged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to save it from the lack of a sizeable domestic market for its product. The USDA spent $2.5 million buying bison meat in 1998 and $7 million the year after.

“We made it very clear to the industry that they need to take some responsibility in adjusting their production to meet the market forces in the market place,” USDA Agricultural Marketing Service administrator Enrique Figueroa said in 1999. “We are not going to be buying bison indefinitely.”

In 2000 and again this year, the agency gave the buffalo industry its wings, so to speak. But the USDA should have refused the cooperative’s request outright. The get-rich-quick allure of a meat that draws more than twice what the government pays for ground beef kept poor bison farmers attached to a product that has only minimal market value as a restaurant delicacy.

Now Congress is considering compounding the USDA’s failure. Not only would the stimulus package give an unprecedented allowance to an infant industry that needs to grow up, but it would signal to the apple, green bean, blueberry, pumpkin and chicken waste “industries” – all of which will share the proposed $220 million in new USDA subsidies – that Sept. 11 is a political favor on which to cash in. Insurance companies and airlines were directly affected by the disaster, and government protection of them was appropriate, but enough is enough, especially for an industry whose problems began long before the terrorist attacks. A bison bailout would be, quite literally, a bunch of bull, and the Senate should send a discouraging message to industries that expect Sept. 11 to excuse them from their duty to plan responsibly.