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Farm bill fail: Is food policy headed back to the future?

Will the Tea Party GOP take farm policy back to 1949 by refusing to pass a farm bill before September?

It’s no secret that the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party would like nothing more than to send Americans back in time. Given their recent attempts at banning contraception, we might think that digging up a DeLorean or getting Mr. Peabody to dust off his Way Back Machine were perhaps their best shots at it. But it now appears that the House GOP may have discovered an easier way -- the 2012 Farm Bill.

Where are we going? Back to the great year of 1949. Ah, 1949. The Yanks beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series (on their way to five straight World Series victories) while Hedy Lamarr ruled the box office in the thrilling epic Samson & Delilah. It was also the year William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature. As for America, its population, at just under 150 million, was less than half of what it is today. The Interstate Highway System didn’t even exist yet.

In 1949, approximately 15 percent of Americans lived on farms and almost 10 percent still worked in agriculture overseen by 5 million farmers (compared to less than a million today).

It was also the year Congress passed the Agricultural Act of 1949, the only piece of “permanent legislation” when it comes to farm subsides. You see, the farm bill gets adjusted and reauthorized every five years, but virtually all the programs and subsidies within it expire at the end of each five-year period. The provisions of the 1949 act never do.

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Despite the headlines, Big Ag subsidies aren’t going anywhere

The "era of direct payments is over for farmers," reports Bloomberg Businessweek. “Farm subsidies could finally be on the chopping block,” says this recent article in the Baltimore Sun. Meanwhile the president of the ultra-conservative American Farm Bureau Federation was even quoted recently saying, “the public will no longer support direct payments to farmers.”

On the surface, all this sounds promising to those in the food movement who see government subsidies for commodity farmers as a systematic way to keep industrial and highly processed food cheap and plentiful. But in truth, headlines like these (which have been especially plentiful since the Senate Ag Committee began convening hearings and holding public meetings a month ago in an effort to draft the 2012 Farm Bill) speak more to the shifting rhetoric behind farm subsidies than they do to any real change in the big picture of American farming.

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Corn, corn everywhere — and not a drop to eat

This spring, commodity farmers will plant more corn, soy, and wheat than they have since World War II.

If you want to understand the state of American commodity agriculture at the moment, you need only read this recent Bloomberg article. It begins:

U.S. farmers will plant the most acres in a generation this year, led by the biggest corn crop since World War II, taking advantage of the highest agricultural prices in at least four decades.

They will sow corn, soybeans and wheat on 226.9 million acres, the most since 1984, a Bloomberg survey of 36 farmers, bankers and analysts showed. The 2.5 percent gain means an expansion the size of New Jersey, as growers target fields left fallow last year and land freed up from conservation programs.

According to the article, American farms brought in a net income of over $100 billion last year. As farmer Todd Wachtel told Bloomberg, “There is unlikely to be any ground that won’t be planted this year ... Farmers know that they have to plant more when prices are high because they may not last.”

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Farm Bill update: Fewer secrets, more hard work

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act is one of two bills sustainable ag advocates will be rallying around this spring. (Photo by fieldsbh.)

Now that we're beyond all the intrigue and behind-closed-doors shenanigans of the failed Secret Farm Bill, the good food movement is tasked with something even more daunting: staying awake and engaged as the 2012 Farm Bill moves through a more traditional process of hearings, committees, and amendments. I have my party hat on -- do you?

The clock is ticking

Because we’re in an election year, the bill would essentially have to be ready to go by the beginning of this summer for it to pass before the 2008 bill expires in September. And while Tom Laskawy and others think that’s unlikely, it’s not impossible, either. In a recent, super-in-depth rundown of the logistical and political factors effecting the process, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) wrote:

… The Food, Energy, and Conservation Act of 2008 was, in fact, passed in the presidential election year of 2008.  But unlike the current situation, both the House and the Senate had already passed their versions of a farm bill in 2007. The work in 2008 was focused on reconciling the differences in the two bills through a conference committee and then passing the compromise.

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A farm bill in 2012? Don’t hold your breath

The “smoking ruins” of the "Secret Farm Bill" aren’t a very fun place to be. Your tour of the site includes proposed cuts to conservation programs, reductions in federal nutrition programs, and problematic expansions of crop insurance, including the creation of a controversial new subsidy known as “shallow loss insurance” that would guarantee farmer income in the event of small drops in sky-high commodity prices. There’s also all that exhausting post-hype fallout raining down. Those motivated souls who paid attention to the Secret Farm Bill late last year are understandably reluctant to re-enter the area.

It’s time to ask: What are the chances that any of this will come to pass as scheduled this year? Certainly, legislators are hard at work. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), architect of the shallow loss program, is already out among agribusiness folks flogging the idea once again. Meanwhile, a confident Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Senate Agriculture Committee chair, said in a speech recently that she will have a bill ready for a vote in “the first half of this year.”

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Why the 2012 Farm Bill is a climate bill

U.S. Department of AgricultureLand that is currently being farmed doesn’t capture carbon in the soil. As a possible 2012 Farm Bill looms, the ag committee leaders and their industrial agriculture lobby remoras are sorting through the smoking ruins of the 2011 "Secret Farm Bill" process. They hope to come up with a unified position from which to begin deliberations on a new bill. Sadly, one thing they've all agreed to cut is 7 million acres from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP is administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and pays farmers to keep highly erodible land out …

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Can the 2012 Farm Bill protect the Ogallala Aquifer?

Kansas wheat.Photo: Brian McGuirkMy father farmed in Kansas and envied those lucky farmers in the wetter states to the east of us, who could grow 200-bushel corn and other lucrative crops like soy beans and sugar beets. He had to satisfy himself with wheat, a drought-tolerant crop first brought to the States from a place in Russia much like ours. There, they called such arid places "steppes." Here, we called them "plains." To look at the pale-green buffalo grass that covered the High Plains, you would never suspect that an aquifer holding as much water as Lake Huron lay beneath. …

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The bad food news of 2011

We continue digesting this year's food politics coverage below -- only this time we take account of the things that didn't go so well. (Tired of bad news? See the year's good food news instead.) 1.  Food prices have gone up, and more people need help feeding their families The fact that 46 million people -- about a seventh of the U.S. population -- now receive food stamps (i.e. help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)) should be enough to tell us that something is wrong with America's food system. But thanks to the way public food assistance is …

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Whippersnappers unite: Young farmers work to change 2012 Farm Bill

A group of young farmers visiting Sen. Olympia Snowe's office in Maine.Across the U.S., young people are heeding the call for a more just, sustainable, and healthy food system, and are heading to the fields to build it themselves. They are working on farms and starting their own small-scale farm businesses from scratch. But, as the National Young Farmers' Coalition recently revealed, there are big obstacles getting in the way of these green entrepreneurs -- and the change eaters want to see on their grocery store shelves. Last month, the Coalition released the results of a needs survey of 1,000 …

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Hacking the Farm Bill

A slide from the winning entry. Rebecca Klein wasn't expecting a lot when she signed up to attend last week's Farm Bill Hackathon. This public health expert from the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University had never heard of a hackathon -- a gathering of computer programmers who lock themselves in a room to tackle epic projects with unrestricted creativity -- until around two weeks before the event. While the idea of bringing together other sustainable food advocates with computer programmers interested in helping them build tools appealed to her, it also seemed a little ambitious. The …

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