Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Farm Bill Gives Me a Headache

Here's the real truth: I only wish I genuinely understood all the dimensions of debate around the 2007 Farm Bill.

I wish this because I care very deeply about the future of small, ecologically-healthy, diverse, lively agricultural operations in this country. Unfortunately, having a set of worthy ideals does not always immediately produce an obvious set of specific policies that will attain those goals. Especially if a multitude of players are attempting to disguise or spin the meaning or effect of those policies; or (more charitably) if there is legitimate and well-intentioned disagreement about their potential consequences.

Boy, it's tough, isn't it, when issues don't break down neatly along party and/or ideological lines, and nobody is telling you exactly what to think (or different people you trust are telling you different things), and you are forced to think for yourself?? I'm not anywhere near done with that process yet. But I'm not willing to totally give it up, either, so-- in the interest of all of us thinking for ourselves-- I present you with some various viewpoints I've been considering today.

First off, let us recognize that yesterday marked the first day of the House Agricultural Committee's markup session on the Farm Bill. Natasha of Daily Kos was there and blogged the day's proceedings. Her synopses of each member’s comments help to identify key issues contained within the bill, and the positions of various constituencies. It is valuable to note that even some Republicans, such as Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (NE) seem seriously concerned about corporate concentration of agriculture. Yesterday's session was also covered here at

I've expressed some interest here in the Farm 21 plan espoused by Reps. Blumenauer and Kind (and, for that matter, Sen. Dick Lugar, R-IN). I've also noted that, despite Farm 21 being marketed by these Democratic reps as a progressive plan, there seemed to be a fair bit of progressive opposition to it. In the interests of fairness (as well as the interests of still-making-up-my-mind), here are some strongly expressed arguments against Farm 21's "reforms":

Farm Bill Girl, again at Daily Kos, has been fighting hard against what she sees as a misinformation campaign selling Farm 21 to progressive bloggers. She directed me to this analysis from the Blog for Rural America, entitled "Ron Kind's Farm 21-- Friend or Foe?" The post lists off its main points at the beginning:

· While FARM 21 would change the basic structure of farm programs, it does little in the way of making sure that farm program benefits flow to small and mid-size family farms;

· FARM 21 does not close the loopholes used to avoid farm program payment limits;

· FARM 21 shifts large amounts of money to conservation programs- a laudable goal- but invests most of that money into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which subsidizes enormous manure lagoons and the concentration of livestock production;

· FARM 21 places much-needed resources behind some rural economic development programs, but others receive inadequate amounts;

· FARM 21 does not include any crucial livestock market competition reforms;

· Despite our criticisms, every farm bill proposal should receive equal consideration.

Please see the post itself for expansions of the above points. I have seen this objection in several places: that the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), by providing funding that helps large livestock operations comply with environmental standards, is thereby subsidizing giant facilities when it should be assisting the small operator. While I agree that farm assistance should be targeted to small farmers in general, some of these large animal facilities are such environmental disasters that I can't help but be a little grateful for anything that might help clean up their act, though of course I'd prefer tough legislation requiring them to maintain environmental quality or get out of the business.

I also liked this discussion for its even-handedness. The post makes clear that any Farm Bill proposal would be just as diligently vetted.

All of this criticism should not be taken as a complete denunciation of Kind’s proposal and his concepts. We can and have subjected the legislation of many others to the same level of scrutiny, and we’re looking forward to the House Agriculture Committee’s final version of the farm bill with some amount of vicious glee. It is our goal to provide the fullest picture possible of various proposals, as the proponents of various proposals inevitably shade the truth about what their legislation would do, who it would benefit, and who it would hurt.
The same blog, today, has a post entitled "This is NOT Reform," regarding Committee Chairman Collin Peterson's payment limitation reform proposal, raised yesterday in the Agriculture Commitee.

The Ruminant defends Farm 21 (I think) with faint praise.

A couple of good round-ups:, from a week ago. This piece mentions that Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) "plans on writing a 6- to 7-year farm bill rather than the 5-year farm bill that has been discussed in the House and Senate. ...In a telephone conference call with reporters, Harkin said he was firm about writing a longer bill because he needs budget savings from the 2013 to 2017 period to write the kind of bill he wants.” Inadequate funding for all the provisions architects would like to include is a common refrain during this process, and Harkin apparently anticipates future sources that would make a more ambitious bill possible.

And a good update as of yesterday, from More Deliberate Every Day.

The same blog is also featuring an op-ed by Alice Waters on the Farm Bill from the Sacramento Bee (subscription only): here's the blog post. Waters is unfortunately rather vague, at least in the quoted bits, and returns us where we started with the worthy ideals, but she remains an icon for the foodie crowd.

There's one point I haven't got any confusion about. Country-of-origin labelling on our food is a good thing. The always alert OrangeClouds115 of DKos warned us yesterday about an amendment afoot from Rep. Goodlatte (R-VA) that would gut attempts to enforce mandatory country-of-origin labelling-- actually signed into law with the 2002 Farm Bill, but never fully implemented. The National Farmers Union action alert is here.

Advice, ideas, links, opinion more than welcome.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The first thing to catch my eye is the word "diversity" because large ag operations hardly can do a meaningful job of that.

The second thing was a cloud of ????'s and !!!!'s as to why the gummnt is involved, how... I need to read it but does one have to have one's farming "approved" by the gummnt when undertaking small commercial endeavors (I've never sought gummnt anything in farming)? Things springing to mind include the govt in the bedroom, in education (my what a piece of work), the gumt in, well, anything.

Yet the same gummnt refuses to regulate hedge funds, which have ripped the guts out of the mortgage industry with predatory mendacity?

Each parcel of land is going to require its own method, depending on terrain, water, soil, etc.

One thing that makes me way crazy about farming is how this nation has entirely overlooked methods working well for extreme rural China for millenia, involving a beneficial relationship with gravity vs. a confrontational one: terraced farming. Most of the flatlands, where sheets of irrigation water are artificially forced around, are not good choices for farming anyway. I have heard thoughts - with which I agree - that most of the land west of the Mississippi should never have been molested with large scale farming in the first place. Semi-arid land is too delicate to impose flood irrigation techniques. Instead, were it to be reversed (and that is impossible), the thing to do would be to farm low-lying hills, something with a slope, and terrace the landscape for better water management.

I would guess that any farm bills are largely the brainchild of corporate producers. Real farmers are too busy to go indoors and type policy.

Random thoughts...