Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Remember the farm bill — the omnibus federal legislation that generated so much sound and fury last year?

Like a downer cow slouching toward its executioner, the farm bill still lives, sort of. The House, Senate, and president are haggling over it, squabbling over the bill’s price tag and how it will be funded. If they don’t hash something out by March 15, they may just extend the 2002 farm bill.

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Here’s what Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Ag Committee, told Brownfield News: “I’d say at this time, at this point, an extension of the present farm bill is probably the most likely scenario right now.” Naturally, given all the energy invested in farm-policy reform in sustainable-ag and green circles, there has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth over this state of affairs. What follows is some more.

None of the versions of the farm bill floating around congressional back rooms and White House crannies challenge the basic premise of industrial agriculture: that megafarms, using whatever synthetic chemicals and genetically modified seed available, should crank out as much corn, soy, cotton, and meat as they can, environmental and social consequences be damned.

True, as my friends over at the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition will remind me, there are important conservation programs at stake. These programs matter; they are worth haranguing your reps and senators about. At this point, they are the only public levers we wield that check the power of agribusiness. I’ve pasted them at the bottom of this post.

But taken together — important as they are — they don’t amount to a serious challenge to industrial agriculture.

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Meanwhile, President Bush is being hailed as a hero of the farm bill debate in some quarters, mainly because he has pushed for cuts in commodity subsidies. The New York Times editorial page recently opined that:

The [only] reason for hope is President Bush, who has been on the right side of the farm issue from the beginning and is threatening to veto any measure that resembles the stinkers produced by the House and Senate last year.

This is — what do the British call it? — a load of bollocks. Bush supports subsidy cuts for two reasons. One, he’s already spent so much on his ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he needs to find cuts where he can; and he’s not willing to raise taxes or cut subsidies to oil giants (or ethanol makers, for that matter). In 2002 — remember the surplus? — Bush signed into law the most subsidy-heavy farm bill ever.

Two, he realizes that subsidies are blocking global trade treaties. Agribiz giants and other U.S. corporations have more to gain from ramming open markets in the developed world than they have to lose from subsidy cuts. Moreover, I bet Bush — or at least his main ag man, former Archer Daniels Midland flack Chuck Conner — understands that subsidies don’t drive overproduction, and removing them won’t stop it. Overproduction is driven by the lack of federal supply-management programs, as well as the rise of industrial agriculture in places like Brazil.

I won’t dig deeper into that hornet’s nest here; for those interested, see my thrilling debate with Environmental Defense last fall.

Mary K. Hendrickson has a more nuanced view of the debate than the Times. Hendrickson, an ag-extension agent and associate professor of sociology at the University of Missouri, ranks in my book as one of the most important ag scholars working today. (When I or anyone else tells you that four giant companies slaughter 83.5 percent of U.S. cows, we’re leaning on her work).

Writing to the ComFood listserv (quoted with her permission), Hendrickson had this to say about anti-farmer rhetoric and enthusiasm for Bush’s position welling up in sustainable-ag circles:

Right now market forces for commodities are helping farmers with this last very good year — but that barely makes up for five bad years. Moreover, most of the income is handed over to a) absent landlords who inherited land from parents/grandparents and who want to get the best price for rent which is currently over $180/acre for irrigated land in my home county in Nebraska, b) fertilzers and other input costs which have been steadily rising in sync with rising prices for other commodities, i.e. OIL! and which by the way our controlled worldwide by just a few companies and c) the high prices that seed companies are charging for seed as they continue to stack traits that people may not want in their bid to control markets and intellectual property. All I’m saying is that commodity grain farmers are just now starting to make up their incomes and equity for all they lost in years of below cost of production prices. Would I like to see them get out of commodity crops? Certainly, but we better create a structure – fair and accessible markets for alternative crops and livestock, access to alternative seeds and inputs, transportation, processing etc, — that will better allow farmers to change.

And that, precisely, is what no Farm Bill version now bouncing around Washington offers.

What can citizens concerned about participating in a just and environmentally responsible food system do? For now, organize locally. Work with area farmers to figure what assets they have — and what impedes them from profitably growing and distributing more fresh, healthy, affordable food.

Work with them to leverage their assets — and invest in infrastructure to overcome their impediments.

Local food councils — if you’ve got one in your area, participate; if not, work with farmers, chefs, anti-hunger activists, and local-food enthusiasts to start one.

Important stuff to harangue your Congressperson about

Source: Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

  • $15 million in annual mandatory funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and $5 million in annual mandatory funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account Program
  • $2 billion in additional mandatory funding over five years for the Conservation Security Program
  • $40 million (the 2002 Farm Bill level) in annual mandatory funding for the Value-Added Producer Grant
  • Incorporating the Organic Conversion Assistance Program into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) so that educational and financial assistance is available to farmers moving to certified organic systems nationwide
  • $16 million in annual mandatory funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative
  • $75 million in mandatory funding over five years for the Rural Micro-Enterprise Assistance Program