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Should You Care?

Jul
16
2007

The food press is all over it, but no one else is paying much attention to the so-called farm bill coming up for renewal this September. True, the bill isn’t relevant to everyone. Those who don’t eat or drink to stay alive needn’t pay much attention. But if you do count those activities as central to your continued well-being then a few moments of consideration might be worthwhile.
Click to view larger versionThat’s why it’s caught the attention of the food gang – because since the last farm bill was passed five years ago, it’s become clearer than ever that the bill’s provisions – including school lunch and food stamp programs – affect the kind of food we put in our mouths, for better or worse.
I’ll try to break the mind-bogglingly complex legislation down into digestible pieces over the next few weeks, but in broad strokes the farm bill provides subsidies (either through direct cash payments or indirectly through price supports and tax breaks) to those in the ag biz. It’s been around since Noah’s Ark. In fact, those who receive the subsidies pretty much assert they’re God-given and no one has the right to take them away, and if they are taken away then flood, pestilence and higher food prices will result.
The lobbyists claim these subsidies are essential to keeping our farmers in business — and given the recent news reports about contaminated food from China that seems like a good idea to me. But which farmers? The subsidies go to those who grow 19 targeted commodity crops. Soybeans, rice, corn and cotton are on the list. Green beans, squash and cucumbers aren’t. I like corn on the cob and a mess of barbequed soybeans as much as the next guy, but most of the corn is used to feed livestock (that it makes sick), or is turned into fructose (that makes you fat), or most recently ethanol to power your car while you cruise down the highway munching on a corn-fed burger and drinking a corn-sweetened soda.
Follow the money. It isn’t the small family farmers, like Ed who I buy tomatoes and squash from or Tracy who sells me meat, who benefit from the government’s supposed concern. Ed and Tracy get highlighted by the lobbyists, but it’s Big Ag, like Archer Daniels Midland or Conagra, and major land-holders that get the bulk of subsidies. The thousands of truly small farmers don’t get a penny.
Some of these small farms are classified as “retirement,” or “residential/lifestyle” — what my father called a “gentleman’s farm.” This is the kind of farm I grew up on. They raise crops or livestock mostly for the pleasure of doing so (or, as I often thought when I was growing up, to punish their children by making them weed the gardens in the hot August sun or dig postholes in January’s frozen ground). Sadly, these folks also provide the bulk of what I find at the local farmers’ markets.
I say “sadly” because the true small farmer, whether classed as “limited resource” or “low/medium sales,” is almost completely absent from the farmers’ market. These classifications are composed of people genuinely trying to make a living from farming. I’d love to see more professional farmers at the market because I’m afraid their absence indicates their scarcity. But it’s terribly difficult to make a living from farming on a small scale (less than 150 acres) and the government doesn’t seem to be interested in making it easier for the little guys.
These small farmers are the people deserving our support. I would certainly prefer seeing my tax dollars go toward helping out Tracy and his wife and two daughters than toward helping out Archer Daniels Midland or Tyson Foods. Fortunately there are efforts being made by a number of constituencies to address the needs of not just the small farmers, but of all the farmers who feed us. Unfortunately Big Ag is fighting such changes tooth and nail.
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