I Eat & I Vote

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On Dec. 12, more than 100 Twin Citians gathered in the basement of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis to discuss federal farm policy reform at a meeting organized by the Land Stewardship Project and Oxfam America. Who cares about farm policy—in Minneapolis of all places? These people, who came from a variety of backgrounds (few of them having much to do with production agriculture), care, and here’s why you should too.

Every five years or so, Washington, D.C., pays attention to agricultural policy long enough to whip up something called the Farm Bill. The latest concoction is due out in 2007, and policymakers and lobbyists are already working furiously to influence what ingredients will be included this time around. Debate over the Farm Bill should be front-page news. After all, it affects everything from what food is produced on the land and how safe that food is, to what our children eat at school and what claims can appear on a label. The Farm Bill even determines how food stamps and other nutrition assistance programs are distributed. No piece of federal legislation impacts our supper table and rural landscape more than the Farm Bill. And yet it’s virtually ignored by the vast majority of the public. Most people’s idea of a good farm program, to paraphrase former Texas Ag Commissioner Jim Hightower, is Hee Haw.

That’s too bad. Through a combination of benign neglect, outdated ideas and a concerted effort on the part of narrowly-focused special interest groups, our ag policy has evolved during the past half century into a beast that has increasingly little to do with creating a healthy food and farming system that benefits consumers, farmers and our environment. As you read these words, consider this: during the past 12 months you paid some $80 to support farm programs that pay farmers for producing a handful of commodity crops. That per capita cost more than doubles when one also considers the Farm Bill’s nutrition support programs like Food Stamps. Still, paying 22 or even 50 cents a day for a program that helps support production of one of the necessities of life is a bargain. It sure goes down better than footing the bill for $640 Pentagon toilet seats.

But there are many hidden price tags attached to our federal farm policy. In some ways, our Farm Bill is the antithesis of local food security, as it encourages monocultural production and penalizes, local, diverse farming systems. The Farm Bill’s payment system encourages massive production of a few select commodities—corn, soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton-using chemicals and energy intensive systems. That’s one major reason the Environmental Protection Agency has labeled agriculture the biggest source of nonpoint water pollution in the country. This focus on all-out raw commodity production has also played a major role in creating a situation where a typical meal travels over a thousand miles before it reaches our plate. What incentive do Minnesota farmers have to raise vegetables for local markets when the government will pay them to raise corn and soybeans for export?

In a state like Minnesota, for example, diverse farming systems that used to consist of dozens of crop and livestock enterprises have become monocultural one-trick ponies. In some parts of western Minnesota, over 90 or 95 percent of the farmland is planted to either corn or soybeans. Livestock, which traditionally provided an excellent way for farms to add value to their grains and forages while recycling nutrients in the form of manure, are increasingly being raised on specialized, large-scale factory operations. They are fed corn and soybeans that are raised in the next county, the next state, or even in another country. Even though such livestock operations do not receive direct subsidies, they do get a substantial indirect subsidy in the form of corn and soybean based feed that is kept cheap by the Farm Bill.

Eating is supposed to be an agricultural act. But our federal farm policy has little to do with food, and more to do with raw commodity production. A prime example of this disconnect is the USDA’s Food Pyramid. The Pyramid, which promotes a balanced diet that contains fruits and vegetables, has little relation to what the USDA pays farmers to raise.

“The disparity points out an awkward truth about the USDA: what it urges people to eat to remain healthy does not match what it pays farmers to grow,” writes Andrew Martin in the Chicago Tribune.

It’s telling that perhaps one of the most innovative programs for getting fresh, local foods to schoolchildren is administered not by the USDA, but the Defense Department.

Agribusiness firms and their allies in Congress defend the current Farm Bill by saying it keeps family farmers on the land. That was true in the past, but it’s less so these days. In 2004, for example, 10 percent of the richest farms received $11 billion in total commodity subsidies, more than double what the rest of the operations receiving subsidies got that year. Farm program loopholes and the lack of firm payment limits allow individual operations to collect subsidies that exceed $1 million in some cases.

The Washington Post just ran yet another expose this summer on how the farm program is being abused by wealthy landowners, many of whom have never sat on a tractor a day in their life. A University of Minnesota analysis of rural census numbers and cropping trends shows that often the more corn and soybeans planted in a county, the steeper the drop in population.

A recent bipartisan effort to put a firm $250,000 payment limit cap-far more than the typical family—sized farm would ever qualify for—has went nowhere in Congress. Multinational grain companies, factory livestock operations that rely on cheap corn and soybeans for feed, and mega-grain and cotton producers like things just the way they are. It’s no wonder they are pushing for an extension of the current Farm Bill in 2007.

Given the dysfunctional mess the Farm Bill has turned out to be, it’s tempting to call for a complete dismantling of the whole thing. But not so fast: there are still over two million farmers in this country, the majority of whom are not abusing the system. They have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the areas of crop production, animal husbandry and land stewardship. Farmers and ranchers own and manage 50 percent of the land area in the United States. It has become clear in recent years that diverse family farms provide many public “goods” that go beyond the price of a gallon of milk or a box of cereal. Research on sustainable farming systems in Minnesota and elsewhere is showing that farms can help protect water quality, improve wildlife habitat and provide other ecological services—all while producing food for local consumption. Such public goods are difficult to calculate and put on a price tag, making it necessary to have policies in place that support and encourage such farming systems.

Transitioning a farm out of the typical corn-bean-feedlot machine model into a more diverse system that provides multiple public goods while feeding local consumers is not easy. Sustainable agriculture, not to mention alternative marketing ventures such as direct sales and Community Supported Agriculture, are management intensive. A support system is needed to help farmers successfully make the switch.

That’s where a new, food-based, consumer-friendly Farm Bill can come in.

The current Farm Bill is a good place to start. In fact, hidden here and there in the fine print are some good programs that promote local foods and sustainable agriculture are already present in farm policy. Now they need to be given full funding and expanded considerably to make them more than good sounding ideas. Within the past year I’ve been on several farms that have received modest payments through a new program launched in the 2002 Farm Bill called the Conservation Security Program. CSP for short, it pays farmers to implement and utilize environmentally friendly farming practices like grass-based livestock production, cover crops that protect water and soil, and wildlife habitat restoration. Some of these farms are using their CSP payments to increase their operation’s ability to provide fresh, local food to consumers.

In addition, there are Midwestern farmers who have used grant money made available through the Farm Bill to build processing facilities so they can supply local institutions with fresh food. And the USDA’s Farm to Cafeteria program supports citizen-led efforts to bring locally grown food to local schools. Never heard of these programs? Neither have most farmers. Such initiatives are vastly overshadowed by the Farm Bill’s commodity payment program.

In 2007, agribusiness will be pushing for even more ways to promote production of commodities like corn as the demand for ethanol skyrockets. If they succeed, that means, more than ever, we will have not a Farm Bill, or even a food bill, but a cheap raw commodity bill.

But Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland aren’t the only ones making their voices heard in D.C. these days. Cracks in the Farm Bill edifice are starting to appear. Debate over the past three Farm Bills has featured increasingly greater input from environmental and sustainable agriculture groups. CSP and the Farm to Cafeteria program are the result of such inroads. And it’s beginning to look like the 2007 Farm Bill will have a another new, potentially influential, participant at the table: groups concerned about the safe production of local foods for all consumers. Consumer groups are teaming up with sustainable agriculture and environmental organizations to get more funding and support for programs that promote local, sustainable food production—true homeland security. The passion with which urbanites called for reform in that church basement on Dec. 12 is an indicator of what can be accomplished if we all come together on the Farm Bill in 2007.

And don’t underestimate the power of consumers to influence policy when given a chance. Before the USDA passed final rules for a national organic label in 2002, it proposed standards that were significantly weaker than what farmers and consumers had been calling for. Within a matter of weeks, over 275,000 public comments—a new record—were directed at the USDA, almost all of them calling for stricter organic standards. The Agriculture Department gave in and eventually passed standards that were more in line with what consumers and organic farmers wanted.

“Don’t mess with us. It blows up in the USDA’s face every time,” says Jim Riddle, a pioneer in the organic movement from Winona, Minn.

Now is the time to let the Minnesota Congressional delegation know that the 2007 Farm Bill must be more accountable to consumers, farmers and our food system in general. Having U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson as the new Chair of the House Agriculture Committee gives this state a lot of farm policy clout. And Tom Harkin, the new Chair of the Senate Ag Committee, is just across the border in Iowa.

Several nonprofit groups are working on making the 2007 Farm Bill a piece of legislation that supports local, sustainable food. For example, the New Farm Initiative the Land Stewardship Project is working on contains several innovative proposals.

A handful of farm state lawmakers may write the Farm Bill, but it takes an entire Congress to pass it. That means every voter, every eater, can have a say in how it is written.

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