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Tom Laskawy's Posts

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Switching subsidies

The president's budget hints at a coming battle over one kind of ag subsidy

When President Barack Obama said during his recent address to Congress that "in this budget, we will... end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them," he set off a firestorm of speculation. Now that the budget outline has been published, we finally have an understanding of what he meant. Yes, as we suspected, he was indeed referring to a specific subsidy program called "direct payments." Jill Richardson explains: Direct payments are a result of the 1996 farm bill. Prior to that, subsidies were given based on need. If you couldn't sell your crops at a price the government …

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Sustainable second in command

Kathleen Merrigan is a progressive's dream pick for the USDA

I guess this whole "activism" thing sometimes works. To have Kathleen Merrigan, one of Food Democracy Now's Sustainable Dozen, named deputy secretary of agriculture is, as Tom Philpott suggests, a huge win for progressives. Say what you will about the USDA Organic program, but Merrigan, as its author and later its enforcer, has been without question battle-tested. In his post, Tom linked to Samuel Fromartz's perspective on Merrigan from back in November. But it's worth digging in to the comments as well. There you'll find none other than Frank Kirschenmann (another Sustainable Dozener about whom I've written) giving Merrigan his …

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Notable Quotable

Let's mend, not end, ag subsidies

"It's a dead end to try and eliminate subsidies, because then you get all of America's farmers, who have political power out of all proportion of their number, unified against change. Right now the incentives are to produce as much as possible, whatever the costs to the environment and our health. But you can imagine another set of assumptions, so that they're getting incentives to sequester carbon. Or clean the water that leaves their farm, or for the quality, not the quantity, of the food they're growing." -- Michael Pollan, reflecting a growing consensus

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Stick that green thumb somewhere else

USDA's People's Garden may not be all it's cracked up to be

US Department of Agriculture chief Tom Vilsack may not deserve that recently awarded Grist green thumbs-up after all. Obamafoodorama (blissfully abbreviated as ObFo) has an amusing and edifying (and lengthy) disquisition on Tom Vilsack's much ballyhooed "People's Garden." When Vilsack took a jackhammer to a slab of concrete in front of USDA headquarters in honor of Lincoln's Birthday (the USDA was founded under Lincoln and referred to by him as "the People's Department"), he thought he was demonstrating the USDA's commitment to sustainable landscaping. But he did it without, it appears, much forethought. The planning process seems to have consisted …

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USDA fudging the numbers

A former USDA worker claims that small farm numbers may be overstated

Are there more small farms or not? Everyone from Reuters to the NYT has documented what appears to be an increase in the number of small farms in the U.S. But blogging ag economist and former USDA Economic Research Service researcher, Michael Roberts disagrees. According to him (h/t Ezra Klein), the supposed increase in small farms represents the USDA potentially fudging the numbers: USDA has also been working harder and harder to find and count hiding $1000 potential farms. Most of these guys don't know they're farms and so they can be hard to find and difficult to entice to …

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Out in the foodshed

NYC's Scott Stringer releases a plan for remaking the urban food system

For those of us wondering what it would take to "localize" urban food systems, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has some answers. In a just-released study called "Food in the Public Interest," Stringer's office analyzes the New York City "foodshed" (a term we'll be hearing a lot of in the future) and comes up with a lengthy set of recommendations. If it does anything, the report emphasizes just how daunting a task it will be to reform food policy in this county. Much of what Stringer hopes to accomplish (especially in the area of nutrition programs) will be handled at …

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All aboard the SUPERTRAIN

The stimulus bill provides serious money for high-speed rail

There are those who have expressed dismay at reports the high-speed rail provision of the stimulus bill was destined to build supertrains to carry gamblers back and forth between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Thankfully, they were woefully misinformed. Matt Yglesias cleared things up when he uncovered a legal analysis of the actual language from the bill: The Stimulus Plan includes two provisions modeled after the [High Speed Rail] Act that finance high-speed rail development. First, the Stimulus Plan provides a $2 billion grant for high-speed rail projects that will remain available until September 30, 2011. The grant will be …

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A plague of Wal-Marts

Until real middle-class wages start rising, we can't end agricultural subsidies

Watching this gripping animation (h/t Ezra Klein) that charts the spread of Wal-Marts across the country got me thinking. I felt like I was really watching the spread of wage stagnation across the country. I'm not suggesting there's any clarity as to which came first -- Wal-Mart or the grinding halt in middle-class wage growth. But Wal-Mart's accelerated growth in the 1980s matches this chart on wage inequality nicely (note the bottom two lines). It's a pointless chicken-and-egg debate at a certain level. You can't blame Sam Walton (much less Sebastian Kresge or James Sinegal) for the fact that discounters …

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Prepping the soil

Vilsack continues to lay the groundwork for reform

There was some curiosity as to what stance U.S. Department of Agriculture chief Tom Vilsack would take in his speech this week before the National Association of Wheat Growers. Surprisingly, he came as the bearer of bad tidings. According to this report: Vilsack called on farmers to accept the political reality that U.S. farm program direct payments are under fire both at home and abroad and therefore farmers should develop other sources of income. In his remarks to the groups he said he intends to promote a far more diversified income base for the farm sector, saying that windmills and …

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Waste not, want less

Why is it so hard for farmers to donate their crops?

Because there aren't enough roadblocks to getting hungry people healthy food, here's another one. And it's something that could be fixed with a small dollop of legalese (ideally right on top of the stimulus package). Someone at Bread for the City, which runs the biggest D.C. food pantry, pointed me to a post on their blog that sets up the problem thusly: [L]iterally tons of fresh fruits and vegetables will be grown this year that will never make it to market for one reason or another. (For instance, major supermarkets turn away curvy cucumbers since they don't stack well ...) …

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