Update [2007-5-4 15:15:3 by Tom Philpott]:Oops. I misinterpreted this bill. It’s what’s known as a “marker bill,” not intended to be voted on, just to express the opinions of the legislators. Thus its lack of a “commodity title” doesn’t mean its sponsors intend to eliminate commodity payments, as I assumed. Nevertheless, the bill contains good ideas, and remains worthy of debate. It’s just not “epochal,” as I hastily — and wishfully — wrote below.

When Bush’s USDA chief Mike Johanns came out with the administration’s farm bill proposal a few months ago, many progressive observers (including Oxfam) cheered, because the proposal placed lower limits on the amount of commodity supports mega-farms could haul in.

A reason to be happy on the farm?

But I groaned, because despite marginal improvements, the proposal really amounted to more of the same: using taxpayer cash to support environmentally horrible, nutritionally vapid agriculture for another five years. To me, the proposal and its reception seemed to show that genuine debate over ag policy would be iced out yet again during farm bill 2007 negotiations.

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But a bill [PDF] introduced Thursday by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) may yet change my tune. It’s full of great stuff.

(Thanks to Grist’s own Lisa Hymas for the tip.)

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First of all, it deals with commodity subsidies boldly: by eliminating them.

The farm bill is broken into ten “titles,” each laying out funding mechanisms for various parts of agriculture and hunger policy. Title I is typically known as the commodity title; it contains the goodies that for years have allowed the agribusiness giants to buy commodities like corn and soy at prices below the cost of production.

DeLauro/Gilchrest would rename Title I the “marketing and economic development title.” This title would provide much-needed investment cash to help farmers access the infrastructure they need to profitably produce food for people living nearby to eat. Among other things, it would provide funds, to be distributed at the state level:

  • To provide marketing or business development assistance to producers;
  • To promote product development or differentiation;
  • To encourage direct-to-consumer market opportunities, such as farmers markets; buy-local campaigns; agri-tourism; on-farm retail market opportunities;
  • To rebuild local and regional food systems and foster agricultural economic development through development of agricultural processing facilities or other infrastructure that enhances or adds value to agricultural products grown within the state.

[Emphasis added.]

This is epochal. For 35 years, the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars every year paying farmers to produce inputs for industry at rock-bottom prices. The dividends on that policy have included public health and environmental calamities as well as a rural economic meltdown; and a windfall for a few agribusiness giants.

DeLauro/Gilchrest would end that policy, and instead leverage the efforts of small-scale farmers and food activists to rebuild health-giving food-production networks nationwide.

I haven’t combed through the details of the proposal, but I will. One note: In lieu of a commodity title, I’d like to see a mechanism through which the government helps farms stabilize the supply and price of the big staple crops — by storing some in lean years and releasing some in bad years.

That caveat aside, at first glance, DeLauro/Gilchrest is the most promising news on the farm bill I’ve seen in a long, long time.