Have you written off the Farm Bill as another sad example of Congressional inaction turned stop-gap effort to placate the Big Ag status quo? If so, you’re not alone.
This giant piece of legislation, which includes everything from crop subsidies to nutrition programs, has seen better days. And many in the Good Food Movement have flat out stopped paying attention. (Can you blame them?)
Well, now there’s good reason to tune back in. It looks like proposed legislation, in the form of a larger sequestration-prevention plan from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) also includes a less-discussed farm bill fix.
But let’s back up. For those who have, understandably, tuned out, here’s a refresher: Last December, after a year and a half of back and forth in Congress, the five-year version of the so-called “2012 Farm Bill” was put on hold, and replaced with a temporary 1-year extension as part of the larger “fiscal cliff” budget negotiations.
If you’re the kind of person who wants to see fewer of our tax dollars spent on industrial grain and factory animal farms—and more spent on organic fruits and vegetables—this extension probably disappointed you. It sets up big commodity farmers—i.e. corn, soy, wheat, rice and cotton farmers—to continue earning direct-payment subsidies at a rate that was set in 2008, before the current ethanol-fueled spike in corn prices.
Meanwhile, the extension gave the little guy a pretty raw deal. Or as the folks over at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) put it, all the programs for renewable energy, rural small businesses, value-added agriculture, new and beginning farmers, conservation, specialty crops, organic farming, minority farmers, and local food producers were “thrown under the bus in the fiscal cliff deal in order to preserve every last dollar of unneeded, untargeted, and antiquated direct subsidies.”
The good news is that the next deadline for a new, five-year bill is September 2013, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are beginning to turn their attention back to the bill. The unfortunate news is that both sides are sounding a lot like a broken record.
As one report from North Dakota read last week:
Representative Frank Lucas, who serves as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has committed to resubmitting the same bill to the House floor for consideration in the coming weeks.
That bill, you may recall, passed out of committee last summer with 16 billion in cuts to food stamps—a move that made it unpalatable to Democrats in the House and Senate. So we’ll see how much luck House Republicans have this time.
On a similar note, it looks like the Senate ag committee is also looking to put forward more or less the same bill that passed in the Senate last summer.
That’s where Harry Reid’s (D-NV) proposed “American Family Economic Protection Act,” which was devised as a way to avoid automatic sequestration cuts on March 1, enters the picture. The act includes a comprehensive farm bill component, and, as some advocates see it, Reid’s take on the legislation—and what it can do for the big picture of food and farming—is spot on.
For one, the legislation would restore support programs for small and organic farmers (and all the other folks who were screwed by the extension). It would also address a loophole that was providing “mega payments to mega farms and absentee passive investors, subsidizing farm consolidation and the demise of family farms,” NSAC’s Ferd Hoefner told the Delta Farm Press. Furthermore, Hoefner added, Reid’s package would direct payments to “working farmers instead of [emphasis mine] to passive investors and general partners whose primary purpose in the operation is simply to collect additional government checks.”
For a visual sense of just how many of these partners and investors—urban folks who happen to own farmland—are cashing in on federal subsidies, take a look at this Environmental Working Group (EWG) map from 2011. These landowners are collecting checks while many farmers, especially the ones who grow fruits, vegetables, and nuts, aren’t getting anything at all. Meanwhile, EWG noted at the time, most of these tax dollars are going to very few farms. “Data from USDA clearly show that the top 10 percent of subsidized farms—the largest plantation-scale operations—took in three-quarters of all farm subsidies since 1995,” the site reads.
This question of who exactly counts as a “farmer”—and whether or not they actually have to participate in the farm business to get farm benefits—goes back many years. (See this effort by the Center for Rural Affairs to tie actual hours worked to farm payments back in 2008.) And it should go without saying that closing this loophole could change the farming game for the better.
NSAC took a measured approach to advocating for such a change in a recent blog post on the organization’s website, but proposed that the farm bill’s current place on the congressional back burner could pose an opportunity to ask some deep-level questions, such as:
Should we subsidize every last acre on every last farm no matter how big the farm, no matter how wealthy the owner, no matter if the beneficiary is a Wall Street investor or an actual working farmer, and no matter how much the subsidy further concentrates agricultural assets and wealth?
That’s a leading question, of course. But what’s really surprising is just how many lawmakers appear prepared to vote yes.
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Twilight Greenaway is an Oakland-based freelancer who has been writing and editing for the web since 2000. Her articles about food and farming has appeared in the New York Times, the Bay Citizen, Smithsonian.com, Civil Eats, and on Grist, where she served as the food editor from 2011-2012. @twyspy | TakePart.com