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Status Quo

Jul
30
2007

My two friends, “Mellani” and “Mike” raise grass-fed sheep on 50 acres of organic pasture set in a wooded farm in Missouri. They had a record-breaking 38 lambs born this year, which, on the face of it, sounds great. But not so great actually. The problem is, they really don’t have a market for their lambs (nor the cattle or hogs they used to raise before the market price dropped below the production price). It’s eight hours round trip to the nearest large city where they might be able to sell their “crop” but that isn’t practical.

Click to view larger versionLike many owners of small farms, at least one family member, Mike in this case, has a day-time job and this income is what they live on. Managing the sheep alone (89 ewes) requires almost all of Mellani’s efforts. That means she doesn’t have time to develop the contacts and connections needed to build a restaurant clientele. So they sell their lambs locally as whole or halves, which covers their costs (barely) but certainly doesn’t provide enough income to live on. And the local market is too small to adequately support even their current production – the result is they’re cutting back on the number of ewes and, so, lambs next year.

How much help do they get from the government? In 2000 during a drought they got a $300 one-time drought-relief subsidy to cover the cost of $2000 in hay they had to buy. They also participated in a now-defunct program that was created to encourage U.S. sheep producers to increase the size of their flocks. It offered a one-time $18 payment for each ewe lamb kept for breeding for at least a year. In short, they get squat from the government.

I have another friend – and I’ve changed some names here and trimmed a few details to protect these people’s privacy – named “Martha,” who owns a several-thousand acre corn farm in Kansas. Unlike Mellani, who’s a transplanted Oregonian, Martha’s farm has been in her family for generations. In many ways the farm defines her and her place as a member of our culture – she thinks of herself as a farmer, she describes herself as a farmer. Her husband, Leo, like Mike, also works outside of the farm, in his case as a financial advisor and analyst. I don’t know to what degree Martha and her husband rely on farm income versus his non-farm income, but I do know they’re quite wealthy by any definition of the word. Nevertheless, according to the Environmental Working Group database on subsidies (based on USDA data) Martha and Leo received nearly $500,000 in subsidies in the years 2003 – 2005.

I don’t want to vilify Martha here (she’s a long-time philanthropist whom I respect and admire greatly), nor laud Mellani. There’s nothing inherently ennobling in any economic status. They are both dear friends who happen to be real farmers at each end of the income spectrum. My intent is to illustrate the spectrum and to note that, despite the difference in scale, they’re both having problems keeping their farms economically viable.

The current Farm Bill (passed in 2002) and the 2007 Farm Bill the U.S. House is about to vote on favors Martha over Mellani. As the graphic I posted last week shows, those who earn more than half a million dollars a year receive 62 percent of the benefits. These are the folks I’ve referred to in past columns as “BigAg.” Some of these big winners are individual farmers, like my friend Martha, who are genuinely struggling to keep an old (albeit large) family business going. Others are multi-national corporations like Con-Agra and Archer Daniels Midland and some are wealthy individuals who are partners in businesses designed specifically to maximize their personal income. There’s nothing wrong with the desire to maximize profits, but I have to ask, should taxpayers be the source of those profits?

I do have a bias, I favor local agriculture whenever practical. It isn’t always. Here in Knoxville, Tennessee, there is no local source for fresh lettuce in December and no local source for flour at any time of year – but, as I said, my bias is practical. I’m not particularly impressed with the health claims of organic farmers, although as a general rule, I’ve found that food is best when it’s simply grown and simply prepared. However, the effects of industrial fertilizers, insecticides and monoculture agriculture are far-reaching and, among other things, have produced an oxygen-deprived “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Do we want to be funding the destruction of the shrimp, oyster and snapper that fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico rely on?

The House of Representatives passed the Farm Bill this week 231 to 191 and according to all reports it is essentially an extension of the current act. The problem with the bill (aside from devoting an inordinate number of dollars to the already-wealthy) is the side effects.

It will continue to favor industrial agriculture over local agriculture, which indirectly promotes the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides whose run-off, in turn, wreaks havoc on estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay as well as the Gulf. It will continue to favor mono-cultural farming over multiple-crop/use farming thus reducing ecological diversity. It will do almost nothing to improve the lot of those who rely on food stamps.

Direct subsidies will continue to be paid (even in profitable years) and the cap on them will even increase by 50 percent, instead of being replaced with something more akin to insurance against bad years. In fact, the only genuine bright spot in this bill is 1.8 billion in funding for programs supporting fruit and vegetable farmers. That sounds like a lot, but is only six-tenths of a percent of the $286 billion in total funding the bill is providing.

As written, the Farm Bill does little for genuine, small family farms. It does little for actually putting better tasting and safer food on our tables. It does little to help those who don’t have enough to eat. In short, it does nothing for most of us, even indirectly, and it does a great deal for political contributors with deep pockets.

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of posts about the Farm Bill. Kevin’s first post about the bill is here and his second here.
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