Why the Farm Bill Matters

(Yes, even to you.)
By Brian DeVore

Every five years or so, Washington, D.C. pays attention to agricultural policy long enough to whip up something called the Farm Bill. The latest concoction is due out in 2007, and policymakers and lobbyists are already working furiously to influence what ingredients will be included this time around. Debate over the Farm Bill should be front-page news. After all, it affects everything from which foods are grown on farmland and how safe that food is, to what our children eat at school and what claims can appear on food labels. The Farm Bill even determines how food stamps and other nutrition assistance programs are distributed.

No piece of federal legislation affects our supper tables more than the Farm Bill. And yet it’s virtually ignored by the vast majority of the public. To paraphrase former Texas Ag Commissioner Jim Hightower, most people’s idea of a good farm program is Hee Haw.

That’s too bad. Through a combination of benign neglect, outdated ideas, and a concerted effort on the part of narrowly focused special interest groups, our ag policy has evolved during the past half century into a beast that has less and less to do with creating a healthy food and farming system that benefits consumers, farmers, and our environment. As you read these words, consider this: as an individual taxpayer you shell out around $180 annually to support farm programs that pay farmers for producing a handful of commodity crops. (When one factors in the Farm Bill’s nutrition support programs like Food Stamps and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) initiative, the total cost for each taxpayer is around $447 annually.)

But there are many hidden price tags attached to our federal farm policy. In some ways, our Farm Bill is the antithesis of local food security, as it encourages monocultural production and penalizes local, diverse farming systems. The Farm Bill’s payment system encourages massive production of a few select commodities-corn, soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton-using chemicals and energy intensive systems. That’s one major reason the Environmental Protection Agency has labeled agriculture one of the biggest sources of nonpoint water pollution-the kind that comes from many, hard-to-trace, indirect sources such as field runoff and manure lagoon leakage. This focus on all-out raw commodity production has also played a major role in creating a situation where a typical meal travels over a thousand miles before it reaches our plates. What incentives do Minnesota farmers have to raise vegetables for local markets when the government will pay them to raise corn and soybeans for export?

In a state like Minnesota, for example, diverse farming systems that used to consist of dozens of crop and livestock enterprises have become monocultural one-trick ponies. In some parts of western Minnesota, 90 percent or more of the farmland is planted to either corn or soybeans. Livestock, which traditionally provided an excellent way for farms to add value to their grains and forages while recycling nutrients in the form of manure, are increasingly being raised on specialized, large-scale factory operations. They are fed corn and soybeans that are raised in the next county, the next state, or even in another country. Even though such livestock operations do not receive direct subsidies, they do get a substantial indirect subsidy in the form of corn- and soybean- based feed that is kept cheap by the Farm Bill.

Agriculture should be about food. But our federal farm policy has little to do with feeding ourselves, and more to do with raw commodity production. A prime example of this disconnect is the USDA’s Food Pyramid. The Pyramid, which promotes a balanced diet that contains fruits and vegetables, has little relation to what the USDA pays farmers to raise.

“The disparity points out an awkward truth about the USDA: what it urges people to eat to remain healthy does not match what it pays farmers to grow,” writes Andrew Martin in the Chicago Tribune.

It’s telling that perhaps one of the most innovative programs for getting fresh, local foods to schoolchildren is administered not by the USDA, but the Department of Defense.


Agribusiness firms and their allies in Congress defend the current Farm Bill by saying it keeps family farmers on the land. That was true in the past, but it’s less so these days. In 2004, for example, 10 percent of the richest farms received $11 billion in total commodity subsidies, more than double what the rest of the operations receiving subsidies got that year. Farm program loopholes and the lack of firm payment limits allow individual operations to collect subsidies that exceed $1 million in some cases. The Washington Post ran yet another exposé this summer on how the farm program is being abused by wealthy landowners, many of whom have never once sat on a tractor. A University of Minnesota analysis of rural census numbers and cropping trends shows that often the more corn and soybeans planted in a county, the steeper the drop in population.

A recent bipartisan effort to create a firm $250,000 payment limit-far more than the typical family-sized farm would ever qualify for-has gone nowhere in Congress. Multinational grain companies, factory livestock operations that rely on cheap corn and soybeans for feed, and mega-grain and cotton producers like things just the way they are. It’s no wonder they are pushing for an extension of the current Farm Bill in 2007.

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Given the dysfunctional mess the Farm Bill has turned out to be, it’s tempting to call for a complete dismantling of the whole thing. But not so fast: there are still over two million farmers in this country, the majority of whom are not abusing the system. They have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the areas of crop production, animal husbandry, and land stewardship. Farmers and ranchers own and manage half of the land area in the United States. It has become clear in recent years that diverse family farms provide many public benefits that go beyond the price of a gallon of milk or a box of cereal. Research on sustainable farming systems in Minnesota and elsewhere is showing that farms can help protect water quality, improve wildlife habitat, and provide other ecological benefits-all while producing food for local consumption. Such contributions to the public good are difficult to put a price tag on, making it necessary to have policies in place that support and encourage such farming systems. It’s not easy to transition a farm from the typical corn-bean-feedlot operation to a more diverse farm that provides multiple public benefits while feeding local consumers. Sustainable agriculture, not to mention alternative marketing ventures such as direct sales and Community Supported Agriculture, is management intensive. A support system is needed to help farmers successfully make the switch.

That’s where a new, food-based, consumer-friendly Farm Bill can come in.

The current Farm Bill is a good place to start. In fact, hidden here and there in the fine print are some good programs that promote local foods and sustainable agriculture. Now they need to be given full funding and expanded considerably to make them more than good-sounding ideas. Within the past year I’ve been on several farms that have received modest payments through a new program launched in the 2002 Farm Bill called the Conservation Security Program. CSP for short, it pays farmers to use environmentally friendly farming practices like grass-based livestock production, cover crops that protect water and soil, and wildlife habitat restoration. Some of these farms are using their CSP payments to increase their operation’s ability to provide fresh, local food to consumers.

In addition, there are Midwestern farmers who have used grant money made available through the Farm Bill to build processing facilities so they can supply local institutions with fresh food. And the USDA’s Farm to Cafeteria program supports citizen-led efforts to bring locally grown food to local schools. Never heard of these programs? Neither have most farmers. Such initiatives are vastly overshadowed by the Farm Bill’s commodity payment program.

In 2007, agribusiness will be pushing for even more ways to promote production of commodities like corn as the demand for ethanol skyrockets. If they succeed, that means, more than ever, we will have not a Farm Bill, or even a food bill, but a cheap raw commodity bill.

But Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland aren’t the only ones making their voices heard in D.C. these days. Cracks in the Farm Bill edifice are starting to appear. Debate over the past three Farm Bills has featured increasingly greater input from environmental and sustainable agriculture groups. CSP and the Farm to Cafeteria program are the result of such increased input. And it’s beginning to look like the 2007 Farm Bill will have another new, potentially influential, participant at the table: groups concerned about the safe production of local foods for all consumers. Consumer groups are teaming up with sustainable agriculture and environmental organizations to get more funding and support for programs that promote local, sustainable food production-true homeland security.

And don’t underestimate the power of consumers to influence policy when given a chance. Before the USDA passed final rules for a national organic label in 2002, it proposed standards that were significantly weaker than what farmers and consumers had been calling for. Within a matter of weeks, over 275,000 public comments-a new record-were directed at the USDA, almost all of them calling for stricter organic standards. The Agriculture Department gave in and eventually passed standards that were more in line with what consumers and organic farmers wanted.

“Don’t mess with us. It blows up in the USDA’s face every time,” says Jim Riddle, a pioneer in the organic movement from Winona, Minnesota. A handful of farm state lawmakers may write the Farm Bill, but it takes an entire Congress to pass it. That means every voter, every eater, can have a say in how it is written.

Meanwhile, consumers can use their pocketbooks to show the agricultural community in general that there is a demand out there for a different kind of food and farming system. As crop and livestock farmer Tom Frantzen likes to say: “When people make a buying choice, they are casting a ballot for the type of food system they want. That sends a tremendously powerful message back to rural America about what sort of farming is valued.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Letter, and was a contributor to The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems (Island Press 2002).


Now is the time to let the Minnesota Congressional delegation know that the 2007 Farm Bill must be more accountable to consumers, farmers, and our food system in general. Several nonprofit groups are working on making the 2007 Farm Bill a piece of legislation that supports local, sustainable food. For example, the New Farm Initiative contains several innovative proposals. For more on the Initiative, and how to make your voice heard in Washington, D.C., call (612) 722-6377 in the Twin Cities, or visit www.landstewardshipproject.org.

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