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Crop insurance: This year’s Farm Bill frontier

2011 was a record year for liability, with drought in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma, and Hurricane Irene taking out crops along the Eastern seaboard. Photo: Bob Gutowski One of the great battles of the 2012 Farm Bill might concern ... (drumroll) ... crop insurance! Don't roll your eyes: At $8 billion, it's the largest part of the current farm bill budget that actually has to do with farms (as opposed to what is literally the largest part, which deals with food stamps). According to a leaked document containing a set of recommendations by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees to …

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No Secret Farm Bill and other things to be thankful for

Mark Bittman has provided the ultimate Thanksgiving guide for anyone interested in making our broken food system work again. His exhaustive list of the 25 people or groups for which he is most thankful is a must-read.* It starts with nutritionist and food system reform pioneer Marion Nestle and ends with "anyone who's started a small farm in the last five years, and anyone who's supported one; anyone who cooks, and especially anyone who teaches others to cook." That covers a good portion of Grist readers, I'd like to point out. So good on all of you, too. Heaven knows, …

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The Farm Bill: The view from the grassroots

The odds that most of us laypeople will have any opportunity to influence this year's Farm Bill process are looking awfully slim. Sure, there's still a chance the current, nearly opaque supercommittee process, and the piece of it now known as "the Secret Farm Bill," could break down. If that happens, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) said last week: It could proceed under a more normal legislative process through both the House and Senate committees early next year, or the current farm bill could be extended for a year, with the committees coming back to work on a new …

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A local food blueprint

Photo: Matthew BurpeeThe most exciting aspect of the new USDA report on the local food and farm economy [PDF] isn't the sizable $4.8 billion in annual sales of local food it says occurred in 2008. It's the fact that, as the AP noted, the local food economy is poised to grow as fast as even the most optimistic estimates. The way things are trending, local food sales in 2011 could pass $7 billion -- a number that local food boosters (as well as the USDA itself [PDF]) threw around a few years back. That figure would represent an impressive 15 …

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Incredible shrinking farmland

Photo: Alicia Guy Joel Huesby comes from a long line of conventional farmers, but in 1994, he had what he calls an epiphany that led him to switch to organic farming. He's of the mind that we'll drive ourselves to extinction if we drive our farmlands that way first. "Conventional commodity agriculture, to my way of looking at it, is standing in the boots of a dead man with toothpicks holding his eyes open," he said. "It looks alive but it's not. I don't see that as the future." Through years of trial and error, Huesby and his family found …

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Will a ‘Secret Farm Bill’ be passed this week?

Photo: Jeff Cushner Update (Nov. 4, 2011): According to this SFGate article, the new bill is expected to be submitted to the congressional supercommittee as early as today (Friday). Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.) (the same Kind who put forth the Kind-Flake amendment during the 2007-2008 Farm Bill process) has stepped up at the 11th hour to oppose the swift passage of a "Secret Farm Bill." He told SFGate's Washington D.C.-based reporter Stacy Finz: "Time is of the essence. This is a horrible process. It keeps Congress and the whole nation in the dark." An additional 26 additional members of congress …

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Farming with a smaller footprint: Why it matters

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Conservation is an important part of federal farm funding -- the laws that shape what, where, and how we grow our food. And yet, if the negotiations around the 2012 Farm Bill go as predicted, funding for conservation is in grave danger.

Why does conservation on farms matter? Well, for starters, most large-scale agriculture is a disruptive endeavor. It requires farmers to plow under native flora and replace it with giant monocultures of annual crops, and then coddle those crops by irrigating them and applying fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides -- all ecologically damaging technologies.

There are ways to farm better, to wash away less soil and use fewer dangerous chemicals. But farming with a lighter footprint often costs more than it brings in, and until around the last decade, federal policy has done little to inspire conservation. Instead, farm subsidies encourage farmers to plant crops fencerow to fencerow with little regard to environmental impacts.

In 2002, though, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began a program aimed a shifting the balance towards conservation. The shift continued after the 2008 Farm Bill, and the new program -- the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which pays farmers to implement measures that reduce erosion and chemical drift, minimize fertilizer runoff, and improve habitat for native pollinators -- has grown every year.  It's now the most widespread conservation program in the country.

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Quick and dirty: Congress may rewrite the Farm Bill in two weeks

A two-week Food Bill rewrite stacks the deck against good-food advocates.Photo: ccarlsteadLast month, I wrote that prospects for reforming the Farm Bill were dim. My prior assessment is turning out to be outrageously optimistic. Typically, passage of the Farm Bill occurs every five years and involves a lengthy process of hearings, constituent meetings, and (sad but true) many a high-priced meal on the tab of some lobbyist or other -- followed by detailed negotiations between the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. It has also often been seen as an opportunity to -- as one recent action alert put it -- …

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Wall Street and ethanol cause starvation, say scientists

Today's supervillains are soooo boring. If only they'd wear tights and touch entrapped damsels’ hair in a way that made us uncomfortable, we'd be up for patriotically pistol-whipping them, Captain America style. Instead we find out that Wall Street and ethanol -- a diffuse network of trading computers and a colorless inebriant, respectively -- are the reason billions are going hungry in the developing world. How are we supposed to launch a hideously expensive vendetta-war against that? The takeaway from Brandon Keim's excellent writeup of a study conducted by researchers at New England Complex Systems Institute is that if you …

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Food fighters: Don't give up on the farm bill

Photo: Jim When the 2008 Farm Bill passed, Michael Pollan took to the pages of Grist to ask, "why so little change on the key issue? Why didn't we get a food bill, rather than another farm bill?" Then he tasked food reformers to prepare for the next one, when change might really happen: It's not enough to engage the public, important as that is; we also have to get much smarter about both policy and politics, and craft some attractive proposals that will divide the farm block as well as move us to a healthier and more sustainable food …