What Does the Federal Farm Bill Have to Do With Me?

—by Lois Braun, HPC Member (October/November 2006)

About 45% of all land in this country is used for agriculture, more than for any other single activity. Thus agricultural policy is everybody’s business, not just that of farmers. Farm policy affects you even though you live in a city, and even though you might not have any family left on the farm. It affects you because, not only do you eat food, but you drink water, breathe air, and pay taxes. It affects you if you like to fish, canoe, or swim in natural bodies of water.

As a human being, you deserve safe nourishing food, clean air, and clean water. The farm bill should deliver these, but it doesn’t; and thus it is wasting taxpayers’ money—YOUR money. In the farm bill we are not getting what we pay for. Discussions are starting now about the next farm bill, which will come out in 2007. It is time for city people to get involved.

Origins of the Farm Program

The original idea of the farm program was good. It started at a time when the majority of our nation’s population were farmers, and a majority of farmers were poor due in part to wildly fluctuating crop prices. So price support systems were enacted that made up the difference to farmers when prices of “commodity crops” (corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, cotton) fell below a baseline.

Why It Hasn't Worked

Sadly, the program has not prevented the loss of farmers, who are now only about 1% of our population. What happened is that, with a guaranteed profit from farming, farmland became an attractive investment. The price of farmland was bid up so high that farmers that didn’t participate in the commodity program were unable to compete and went out of business. Remaining farmers gobbled up the land and farms grew bigger, relying ever more on larger,more destructive farm equipment and more agrochemicals.

The only people who really benefited were equipment and input sellers, commodity buyers, and large landowners, including absentee landowners. Many of those who receive subsidy payments, which may exceed $250,000, are not even farmers.

Another result is that farmers have gradually abandoned diverse crop rotations that protect soil and water and guard against pests, and have started growing only the crops that are subsidized. Pastures and hayfields, which are the most sustainable of agricultural systems, were plowed up and converted to corn and soybeans, which don’t hold the soil as well. Because payments are calculated in part on number of “base acres” used to grow commodity crops, farmers are reluctant to grow other crops, even when the natural features of the land call for it.

My partner’s brother, who farms in Iowa, wanted to buy a field from a neighbor. It had been continuously cropped to corn and thus was badly eroded, but it would have been good for pasture. But because it was part of the neighbor’s corn base, he was unwilling to sell it for less than corn land prices.

Subsidies and Pollution

Commodity payments are not tied to compliance with any conservation standards, but are instead based on yield, so farmers are forced to make soil and water conservation secondary. Thus agriculture is now the biggest source of water pollution, including nitrogen and phosphorus, pesticides, manure, and sediments. Forty percent of Minnesota’s lakes now flunk federal water quality standards (Star Tribune, 9/18/06).

Go down to the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in the spring when water levels are high: the Minnesota River, which drains Minnesota’s richest farmland, flows muddy brown whereas the Mississippi, which flows mostly through forest land and pastures, is much cleaner.

Downstream in Lake Pepin, phosphorus and sediment are accumulating at ten times the rate at which natural processes can clear them out. Further downstream, where the Mississippi enters the Gulf of Mexico, there’s a dead zone where shellfish can’t live due to nitrogen discharge from Midwestern farms. In Des Moines, Iowa, a new $4 million water treatment facility is barely able to get nitrate levels below the 10 parts per million threshold for safe drinking water.

Although there are conservation programs in the current farm bill that are meant to address these problems, they are fragmented and underfunded, turning away three out of four applicants (Star Tribune 9/25/ 06). They have little chance against the commodity program, which receives seven times as much funding.

How Farm Policy Hurts Us

Another problem with the farm program is that it is contrary to the laws of supply and demand. It distorts the markets, leading to overproduction of supported commodities. Dumping of these commodities on the world market keeps prices low and undercuts the ability of Third World farmers to get a fair price for their crops.

The low prices of these commodities leads to their over-use in our food system, such as cheap corn syrup, contributing to the American obesity epidemic, as Heidi Goar explained in her article about corn in the last issue of this of the newsletter. However, the subsidies do not significantly lower the price of nutritious food at the consumer level because most of the retail cost of food is due to the price of processing, packaging, advertising, and distributing. For example, the price of the wheat in a loaf of bread is only about 2 cents. The foods that we need to be eating more of for balanced nutrition, fruits and vegetables, are not subsidized, and therefore are too expensive for many consumers.

One bright spot in the current farm program is the Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program, which allows people using food stamps and WIC vouchers to purchase fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets. Both low income people and farmers benefit, as does our health care system on down the road, as nutrition-related maladies are prevented. We must demand that the next farm bill continue and expand this program, and tie other feeding programs to better nutrition.

What Needs to Change?

So what is the alternative if we want to support family farmers and to ensure a stable food supply? The Conservation Security Program (CSP), which was part of the last farm bill, makes payments to farmers based on conservation practices they implement on their farms.

For example, a dollar value would be assigned for each acre of land in conservation tillage, each 100 feet of terrace, or each acre on which they practice nutrient management planning or conservation tillage. The CSP acknowledges that the cost of farming in an environmentally sustainable way has so far been a burden borne by conscientious farmers by themselves, whereas the benefits accrue to society at large. It would only be fair for society to help defray that cost.

The rewards of good conservation practices are mostly non-economic, but we need to change that. By contrast, productivity does not need to be publicly rewarded because the marketplace already rewards it in proportion to demand.

Unfortunately, so far the CSP has been funded only as a pilot program in a limited number of counties, and the payments are not high enough to make it worthwhile for many farmers. For example, the Miller family in southeastern Minnesota converted 386 acres to alfalfa and pasture (StarTribune, 9/25/06). They got $6,000 from the CSP for it, but if they had left it in corn and soybeans they would have received $10,000. Only the most conscientious and financially well-off farmers would think of making that trade-off.

As long as the commodity program offers farmers a more lucrative deal, the CSP has no chance of bringing about the needed change. Because of the commodity program, farmers who know the right thing to do and want to do it feel they cannot afford to. The commodity program must be completely eliminated and replaced by green payments such as the CSP.

Your Voice Matters

The farm bill is up for reauthorization in 2007. Farm organizations are already discussing what changes should be made. Unfortunately, many have a vested interest in the commodity program. Others simply cannot conceive of an alternative and are suspicious of change.

Reform will not come if policy makers continue to listen only to farmers in setting national agricultural policy. Even the sustainable agriculture organizations, such as Minnesotabased Land Stewardship Project, are afraid to demand an end to the commodity program for fear of alienating allies in the agricultural community. So they need new allies, such as urban people.

Urbanites have a romantic image of agriculture and think that the current farm program supports that, which it does not. Instead, it subsidizes an environmentally unsustainable system of agriculture, with little to show for it other than eroded soil and polluted waterways. Many urban people are environmentalists who would be happy to pay for a farm program that protects our nation’s soil, water, and wildlife through a program such as the CSP. It is time for these people to speak up and demand better agricultural policy in Washington!

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