When the U.S. House passed a new Farm Bill a few weeks ago, it was front-page news. As well it should have been—this marks the half-way point in development of a law that for the next five years or so will determine what and by whom food is grown in this country, what our children eat at school, what labels appear on packages, the cleanliness of our water and the amount of wildlife habitat available in rural areas. Increasingly, farm policy is even having an impact on what fuel you run your auto on.
But the media attention generated was not exactly fawning. One front page, top-of-the-fold headline in the July 28 edition of the Star Tribune — “Is the House farm bill a cushion for the wealthy?” — was typical of the non-ag media’s mostly negative take on the legislation. This fall, likely in September and October, the Senate will develop their version of the Farm Bill. Then lawmakers from both bodies of Congress will get together in a conference committee to hammer out the differences between the House and Senate bills and send the end result to the President. In other words, there are still plenty of opportunities to generate headlines of a more positive variety.
It is rare for Farm Bills to make a newsy splash, but this edition has been garnering media coverage throughout much of 2007. One major reason is that a greater diversity of interests is working to make it more accountable to the public. No longer are agribusiness giants and narrowly-focused commodity organizations the only ones bending the ears of farm state lawmakers. Supporters of sustainable agriculture, environmentalists, nutritionists, foodies, health care professionals, even those interested in sustainable rural and urban economic development are weighing in on this Farm Bill, calling for a law that does more than produce a few raw commodities in massive quantities. These groups are getting the word out on the Farm Bill’s various components, and it’s paying off in the form of heightened public interest.
Ideally, that interest will peak this fall. If the Farm Bill were corn, it would be in the tasselling stage, and we here in Minnesota have a prime opportunity to manipulate the genetics present in the final harvest. That’s because this state has two lawmakers on the Senate Ag Committee: Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar. These Senators could play critical roles in creating a Farm Bill that is accountable to the taxpayer, our communities, consumers and the land.
To determine what should be in the final Farm Bill, one needs to consider what is good, and not so good, about the House version. Such an examination provides a roadmap of what to avoid and what to strive for in the Senate and conference committee.
The House Bill
First, the bad news. As the Star Tribune headline alluded to, the House Bill fails to make significant reforms to current commodity programs, which pay subsidies for the production of a few favored crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton. Unfortunately, the commodity subsidy program has evolved into a system that gives mega-agribusinesses and non-farmers the opportunity to rake in millions of dollars directly through subsidies and indirectly via low-priced commodities, while family-sized farms get hung out to dry. In fact, during the House debate over the Farm Bill, a Government Accountability Office report showed that dead people were getting plump commodity checks, thanks to some fancy legal footwork (read: lying) on the part of their living relatives and business partners.
Probably the greatest failure of the House Bill is the massive cuts — $4.8 billion or 44 percent — to the Conservation Security Program. Also called CSP, this working lands conservation program passed in the 2002 Farm Bill represented a major shift in farm policy. Rather than paying incentives to grow a few raw commodities, CSP rewards farmers for good conservation outcomes and practices that produce cleaner water, healthy soil and more wildlife habitat. A recent study shows that CSP has become a major engine of conservation here in the Midwest. Despite all this, the House attack on CSP means that no new farmers will be enrolled in the program until at least 2012, essentially killing the initiative. The original sponsor of CSP, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Tom Harkin of Iowa, has been critical of these deep cuts, and vows to expand the initiative and make it a central theme of the Senate Farm Bill.
Where the House Bill Shines
Now the bright spots. Several proposals that would help make it easier for locally-produced foods to get into our communities are included in the House’s Farm Bill. Provisions that would encourage schools to create plans for procurement of local food, support “urban agriculture,” promote farmers’ markets, and require the “country of origin” to be included on meat and fresh produce are included. Funding for many of these programs is iffy at best, but it’s hoped the Senate will create more solid financial backing once it takes up the Farm Bill.
One of the more intriguing provisions in the House bill is a recommendation that federal agencies work together to research and eliminate “food deserts” — that’s deserts, not desserts. These are areas that have limited or no access to good grocery stores. These deserts are common in urban areas dominated by convenience stores charging inflated prices for junk food. But they are also increasingly present in rural areas where a new saw making the rounds is, “The closer to the land, the worst the food.” There’s a good chance research into food deserts will show local food systems can help green up some of our cuisine-parched communities.
Also exciting is that beginning farmer initiatives made substantial policy and funding advances in the House bill. The beginning farmer provisions attempt to help the next generation of producers take advantage of new opportunities in agriculture like organics, direct marketing, etc. It includes support for training, credit and conservation initiatives. This legislation isn’t just good news for rural communities and wannabe farmers. Food firms that specialize in organic and sustainably-produced products are finding farmers who can consistently supply their needs hard to come by. That’s why Organic Valley helps underwrite the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings program, and why officials from Chipotle Mexican Grill testified at the Minnesota Legislature this year in favor of funding for researching ways of producing livestock using sustainable methods. The House bill’s beginning farmer provisions could be good news for anyone who wants to eat local, sustainably-produced food far into the future.
A pleasant surprise in the House bill was movement to more equitable distribution of payments from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides cost-share grants to farmers implementing conservation practices. Unfortunately, this good sounding program has a dirty secret — it was changed in the 2002 Farm Bill to allow new and expanding factory farms to obtain up to a whopping $450,000 to build huge manure storage and handling facilities in the name of conservation. To put that $450,000 in perspective, during the 2007 fiscal year the average EQIP contract in Minnesota was around $15,000; the largest one was for $284,000, according to the USDA. Factory farms have been using EQIP as an expansion tool to build multi-million gallon liquid manure facilities that engineering and environmental experts are increasingly criticizing as inherently flawed. The House Bill established a $60,000 per contract payment limit, which is a change in the right direction. EQIP has great potential to help the environment in an economically efficient manner. For example, money from the program can be used by family farmers who want to put in fencing or watering systems for pasture-based livestock systems, and these cost-shares often amount to only a few thousand dollars per farm. Watershed studies show such low-cost systems provide a big environmental bang for the buck.
Now, the Senate
How will the Farm Bill fare in the Senate? Senator Harkin has been a supporter of community-based food initiatives in the past, and is a champion of conservation programs. But he can’t do it alone. Every Senator, and thus every citizen, has a say in the final product. Let’s hope that when the final 2007 Farm Bill harvest is brought in, the headlines will be hailing the arrival of a law that reflects the needs and desires of all those eaters.
What You Can Do
Contact Senators Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar and tell them the 2007 Farm Bill should not subsidize factory farms through programs like EQIP, and that the Senate should enact at least a $100,000 per farm cap on the program. Support should be provided for community based food systems, beginning farmers and working lands conservation programs like the Conservation Security Program. Coleman can be contacted at 651-645-0323; Klobuchar at 612-727-5220. Hearing from citizens in September and October will be critical. For more information on how to make your voice heard in the Farm Bill debate, check the Land Stewardship Project’s federal policy page, or contact LSP’s Adam Warthesen at firstname.lastname@example.org; 612-722-6377.