March 4, 2008

A Losing Battle

I’ve been entirely remiss lately with the frequency of my posts. There’s been so much going on that it’s been difficult to pick which ones to devote some time to, and, in the end, indecision and laziness prevail.

Well, that, and when you write as part of your day-job, sometimes the thought of banging away on a keyboard into the evening—after you’ve scrambled to get a child to tae kwon-do; made, scarfed down, and cleaned up dinner; given kids baths; put kids to bed; made kids’ lunches for the next day; done a little laundry; paid some bills; and who knows what else—offers little appeal.

Anyway, I guess you could say that there’s a theme to the two following stories. And that theme would be: Our government stinks. When it comes to food policy in this country, legislators and the current administration will pay lip service to things like good nutrition and supporting “family farmers,” but where the seeds meet the soil, they almost uniformly side with the powerful interests working against these important objectives.

For example, there was a great op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times by Jack Hedin, who runs a small organic farm in Minnesota. Mr. Hedin explained how, to meet increased demand for his organic fruits and veggies, he rented some land from another farmer who raised only commodity crops.

But the arrangement ran into some problems with the Feds, namely the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, which manages the massive U.S. farm subsidies program:

The commodity farm program effectively forbids farmers who usually grow corn or the other four federally subsidized commodity crops (soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton) from trying fruit and vegetables. Because my watermelons and tomatoes had been planted on “corn base” acres, the Farm Service said, my landlords were out of compliance with the commodity program.

I’ve discovered that typically, a farmer who grows the forbidden fruits and vegetables on corn acreage not only has to give up his subsidy for the year on that acreage, he is also penalized the market value of the illicit crop, and runs the risk that those acres will be permanently ineligible for any subsidies in the future. (The penalties apply only to fruits and vegetables — if the farmer decides to grow another commodity crop, or even nothing at all, there’s no problem.) [emphasis added]

In one sense, I can understand where the Feds are coming from. The farmer from whom the land is being rented is, I guess, double dipping: getting paid by the government to grow only corn or, worse yet, nothing on his land, and then renting out that land and getting paid again.

The problem, however, is the same: No incentive to grow fruits and vegetables, but you get paid to grow corn and soy and other crops so that mega-corporations like Tyson or Pepsi have access to cheap feed for chickens or high fructose corn syrup for soda.

And it gets worse. Mr. Hedin?

The federal farm program is making it next to impossible for farmers to rent land to me to grow fresh organic vegetables.

Why? Because national fruit and vegetable growers based in California, Florida and Texas fear competition from regional producers like myself. Through their control of Congressional delegations from those states, they have been able to virtually monopolize the country’s fresh produce markets.

Last year, Midwestern lawmakers proposed an amendment to the farm bill that would provide some farmers, though only those who supply processors, with some relief from the penalties that I’ve faced — for example, a soybean farmer who wanted to grow tomatoes would give up his usual subsidy on those acres but suffer none of the other penalties. However, the Congressional delegations from the big produce states made the death of what is known as Farm Flex their highest farm bill priority, and so it appears to be going nowhere, except perhaps as a tiny pilot program.

I’m sorry. I thought Congress worked for the people, not big companies. Silly me.

Or, in an absolutely expected development, President Bush’s final budget of his reign of terror administration has eliminated the funding for Pasture Systems and Watershed Research Unit at Penn State.

This is a big deal for research into things like sustainable farming, keeping waterways safe from runoff, etc. As a letter from the researchers about the situation explains:

Unless Congress acts to restore the $4.42 million allocation in support of the University Park location, the entire research program will be terminated and all 45 scientist and support staff positions will be abolished.

The research program at University Park seeks to develop profitable and sustainable animal, crop, and bioenergy producing enterprises while maintaining the quality of ground and surface waters. The loss of this research unit would end cutting edge research on nutrient management, forage and grazing land management, water quality, integrated farming systems, and bioenergy cropping systems for the northeastern U.S.

I believe Sam Fromartz, proprietor of ChewsWise, summed it up best:

In light of the growing demand for grass-fed meat and pasture-based dairy farming in the northeast, I find it incredible that this program is being killed. We need more research into sustainable agriculture, not less.

But then we wouldn’t be able to offer $5.1 billion more in commodity crop subsidies, would we?

Excuse me while I go vomit.

No comments: