Last week, The New York Times‘ David Streitfeld told the story of one J.R. Paterakis, a Baltimore “baker” who opposes the Conservation Reserve Program, which provides incentives to farmers to set aside their land for wildlife, clean water, and (incidentally) massive carbon sequestration. Seemed like an opportunity to deploy my rye wit.

The program has been a huge success — protecting 35 million acres of land and partially restoring the “duck factory” of the upper Midwest that fills the skies of North America with quacks and hunting opportunities — so why has Mr. Paterakis put this great environmental success story in his sights?

The bakers and their allies have a different set of overriding issues: high commodity prices. The rising cost of feed is hurting ranchers, the rising cost of corn is hurting ethanol producers and the rising cost of wheat is hurting bread makers.

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“We’re in a crisis here. Do we want to eat, or do we want to worry about the birds?” asked J.R. Paterakis, a Baltimore baker who said he was so distressed at a meeting last month with Edward T. Schafer, the agriculture secretary, that he stood up and started speaking “vehemently.”

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The Paterakis bakery, H&S, produces a million loaves of rye bread a week. The baker said he could not find the rye flour he needed at any price. That gives him two unwelcome options: close half of his operations starting in July, or experiment with a blended flour that will yield a different and possibly less-than-authentic rye bread.

So, who is this humble baker with the big heart for the hungry (and the correctly proportioned pastrami sandwich)? Turns out J.R. Paterakis is anything but a lowly dough boy. Instead, he’s a big-time businessman whose bakery once supplied every McDonald’s on the East Coast with buns, who’s now known in Baltimore more for his controversial real estate empire than his pumpernickel. He’s also a political tycoon who distributes so much largesse (including thousands to both John McCain and the Bush-Cheney campaigns) that he and his father have earned the nickname among Maryland politicos as “the bread men.” All that cash has helped them millions in tax breaks for their real estate projects.

But it doesn’t mean the Paterakis family is neglecting the profits from their baking operations or Bush’s political fortunes. But it seems like they may put more emphasis on the latter. Even though the United Nations just declared biofuels a “crime against humanity,” Paterakis hasn’t spoken out against them or tried to do something about the rising meat consumption also responsible for rising food prices (after all, people have to have something to put between their bread).

Duck pastrami on white, anyone?

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