RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Farm Bill Should Salute Food Quality

When farmers gather for coffee at the quick stop, the kidding is all in millions. There's the million-dollar rain that they're waiting for, having sold their corn on the futures market at high prices. There's the million-dollar vacation condo they'll buy after they deliver the corn that isn't growing due to the drought. And, like every year, there's the joke about the guy who won a million in the lottery and said he'd just keep farming until it was all gone.

It's no news that farmers are gamblers, always been that way, but this year is especially heads and tails. On the one hand, corn prices are up because every little town has an ethanol plant using thousands of bushels, round the clock, every day. The theoretical energy depends on a harvest that isn't in. Not only that, but the entire ethanol theory is based on math that anyone can do in their head and see that it barely works, if it works at all. Not enough energy in corn to replace the oil and oil products it took to produce it and ship it. And where is the water going to come from to process it? And with all the land in corn, how much will hay cost this winter? And what about vegetables and fruits?

There's a new farm bill coming, and fresh, healthy foods should be at the top of the list. Vegetable farmers in this nation can't buy crop insurance to pay for crop failures. They have never gotten subsidies. They are also, by the way, the group consumers depend on when there's a breach in the import-export system. On 9/11, for example, US borders were closed and the grocery store warehouses quickly ran out of product. Grocers sent out desperate e-mails looking for flowers, onions, potatoes. Of course, the farmers couldn't supply the demand overnight.

Fortunately, the borders were opened and products came in before consumers realized how close we came to shortages. But the recent scares with product quality from China gives us a new heads-up.

Americans need farms producing food.

There's a chance to level the playing field with the 2007 farm bill. The title of the bill sums up its importance: The Farm, Nutrition, and BioEnergy Act of 2007. A version has passed the house with a few wins for consumers and family farmers but, as usual, a couple of windfalls for big business. With such a grand title, it would be wonderful if this new bill created programs for farmers that raise food and took away programs for farmers that raise commodities for export or, theoretical energy, like corn and soybeans.

The bill heads to the Senate in September, and advocates for sustainable, local community-based food are working to bring more money to the farmers that raise nutritious food. The Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA) in Nebraska, says the bill would raise payments to the mega farms from $80,000 to $120,000. As a salute to family farms, this payment would only increase for married farmers. The singles and widows will get slightly less than their old maximums.

Every rural state has counties that have lost population because the giants use fossil fuels and expensive equipment to run their operations instead of people. The farm kids move to cities when they're grown. And they are excellent citizens, responsible and forthright. But rural counties suffer because of the losses.

A good farm bill would pay attention to rural development in those counties, and encourage more farmers instead of fewer. For every dollar invested in rural development projects, $1.69 goes to the biggest mega farmers. And, instead of reversing the trend, the 2007 farm bill puts more money into the largest farms. These large farms are supposed to benefit consumers from economies of scale, but they don't. They just benefit themselves economically from the scale of subsidies.

A new study detailed on the CFRA website sketches out the disparity of the payments to top subsidized farms as compared to payments to counties losing population. In only two states, Minnesota and Idaho, are the payments to counties higher than payments to mega farms. In Iowa, the top 20 farm payment mega-farms got more than $24 million. The lowest 20 counties, with 185 municipalities, received about $13 million. In Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Indiana, Missouri and Oklahoma, the numbers were even worse.

The farm bill does carry a proposal for a beginning farmer and rancher development program to help encourage a new generation of farmers. And there are a couple of micro-initiatives for micro-enterprises that would help farmers develop businesses to process the things they raise. And there are a few wins for consumers. $75 million is dedicated to low-income seniors and WIC moms that want to use their government credits for fresh food in farmers' markets. At present, the credits are generally only taken at the large grocery stores, making the bigs the major beneficiaries. Again.

For decades, farm bills have been tilted to favor the big commodity farmers raising corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, cotton and other export items. When there's something in it for consumers, the bigs, that produce millions of, say, hogs, tomatoes, or chickens and put the parts in cans, have been the winners. The littles, who choose to raise fewer numbers and sell them as high-quality foods, have been left out. There's never been any salute to food quality in American farm policy. Maybe this is the year to reverse the trend.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2007

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