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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Behold the farm bill
Alt farmers share in the bounty, but at what cost?

So often something mind-numbingly boring and horribly complicated can be really, really important. Forgive me, then, for subjecting you to a column about the 673-page farm bill of 2008.

Assuming that you haven't already turned the page in search of Mr. Right, I can tell you that the farm bill is critical for advancing Local Flavor's favorite topics - organic farming, sustainable agriculture, farmers' markets, local food systems, healthy school lunches, family farmers, not to mention providing a free organic chew toy for your dog Roscoe.

I made that last point up. But the giving spirit truly is the essence of the farm bill. Think of it as Christmas for special interests, with Uncle Sam dressed as jolly old Saint Nick. Most everybody, including bad boys and girls, gets a present.

So even if the same law shovels tons of subsidies to rich farmers and agribusiness giants - angering countless newspaper editorial writers and everyone from President Bush on the right to John Peck of Family Farm Defenders on the left - the little guys growing organic food are at least catching some of the crumbs.

This is why the $289 billion bill, which will fund farm programs for five years, is hugely popular. A few weeks ago, the U.S. House of Representatives easily overrode President Bush's veto 317-109, while the Senate blew it off 80-14. The widely denounced legislation is widely supported.

"It's pretty disgusting they weren't able to reform the commodities program," notes Faye Jones, executive director of the Midwest Organic & Sustainability Education Service (MOSES) in Spring Valley. "But I probably would have voted for the bill, too. I don't think putting it back on the drawing table would have produced anything different."

Jones is probably right. The genius of the farm bill is its political balance. Most of the money (almost two-thirds) goes to domestic nutrition programs like Food Stamps, which pleases both big-city Democrats and farm-state Republicans. About $40 billion is for farm subsidies, this despite the fact that many of the recipients are millionaires and are reaping record-high prices for corn and soybeans. Another $30 billion pays farmers to keep environmentally sensitive farmland out of production.

How did the alt food movement fare in this mix? Pretty darn good, from what I'm told by advocacy groups such as MOSES, the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Family Farm Defenders in Madison and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.

Here are the bright spots they point to:

Funding for organic farming research increases five-fold, to $78 million, which is deemed vital in helping document the organic story.

Interstate shipment of state-inspected meat from small plants is legalized, which should help marketing and simplify processing for small organic beef farmers.

Farmers' markets, an ever-burgeoning phenomenon, will receive $33 million in promotional funding.

A new initiative, called the Bioenergy Crop Transition Assistance Program, will offer incentives for producing next-generation ethanol from prairie grasses and other cellulosic plants, rather than food grains like corn.

Conservancy efforts will expand, including $12 billion budgeted for a revamped Conservation Stewardship Program. (Some 650 Wisconsin farms are enrolled, with 195,000 acres protected.)

Long-delayed country-of-origin labeling will finally be instituted to tell consumers where their meat is coming from, a move that meatpackers and the food industry had blocked since 2002.

Diversity in farming gets a boost with a $75 million allocation for minority outreach and education.

An expanded Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (at $1.2 billion) will give up to three million low-income children access to healthier food in school cafeterias.

Farmers beginning the arduous three-year transition to organic certification will be eligible for grants from a $22 million fund.

New farmers will have their own $75 million program to help with the purchase of land and equipment.

The problem, as food writer Michael Pollan notes on his blog, is that the forces of the status quo "pick off the opposition, faction by faction, by offering money for pet programs." The critics, as he puts it, have been "bought off."

Left untouched is an industrial agriculture system that tilts most benefits to corn growers, giant feedlot farms, huge processors like Cargill and chemical behemoths like Monsanto.

Ben Burkett, president of the national Family Farm Coalition, denounced the new farm bill as an "abysmal disappointment" for failing to change that status quo. But it's clear that most of his brothers and sisters in the movement were satisfied to get their own piece of the farm bill bounty.

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