RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Tell Congress: Farm Bill Needed

Here we are, drifting along in territory we haven’t seen during my lifetime, floating free without a farm bill. The old farm bill expired on Sunday, Sept. 30, without a successor. The Senate version had passed and the House version needed approval with its new amendments, but Congress was gridlocked and adjourned without taking action. Maybe they figured that the only path they could take, “caving in to big business,” was the path they didn’t want to take in an election year.

So, today, we’re clueless about the next five years of our food supply, and nobody seems to care about what that means, longterm or short. The major business journals, including the Wall Street Journal with many food company CEOs in its readership, hasn’t taken much notice. Why should they? If food prices go up, that’s good for the traders, right?

But consumers and farmers are the losers. While many USDA programs will continue unabated, including food stamps and crop insurance programs, all of which benefit the large corporations, there will be cessation of others — farmers, markets, for example, and so-called specialty crops.

What’s a specialty crop? Hold onto your bib, folks. Specialty crops are the things we eat, fruits, vegetables, nuts. Since Americans import most of our food from far-away places, the definition of “specialty,” has become foods that we don’t import. That’s the upside down world here in America. Agriculture means mostly commodity crops like corn, soybeans, rice, cotton. Those are things we can export and trade for other things. Like food.

So, if you’ve driven across the countryside lately, you know that our farm program, based on exports, shapes agriculture. You’ve seen corn, and beans, and corn, and beans, and more corn, more beans, but darn little else. On my road, which was once a pretty lane of cattle farms, trees, ponds, the ditches have moved six or eight feet out to create a wider space for the huge combines our farmers want to use. The trees, ponds and cattle have been replaced by corn fields.

A good farm bill would provide more diversity for farmers by taking away some of the subsidies and programs for the same old row crops. So there is perhaps good news in the time we have to create a new farm bill. It could give local foods activists a chance to look into the issues and lobby for the changes we want. But, today, even the farm groups, including those that lobbied for one program or another, have hardly taken note of the opportunities or the pitfalls.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition lists 10 critical programs that will lose funding, including rural and urban job creation, natural resource conservation, renewable energy, and improved production and access to healthy food. Beginning farmer programs, business startup programs, energy conservation programs, these are all on the table.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) thinks the major hits will be taken by dairy, which cannot afford it, unless, of course the news is good for dairy and the payments go to a parity-type schedule. Dairy guys are holding on by their fingernails, with credit cards maxed out to buy feed. But nobody knows if they’ll get help. Meanwhile, the corporates are pushing dairy substitutes, almond milk, soy milk, and cheeses made from imported powders.

One thing is certain: there will be hits to conservation programs. This means that conservation land that has been restored, with its collections of habitats and species, may be plowed under and planted. Because, see, even though you thought the conservationists were the good guys with the big hearts, today’s landowners see land as an investment. If the investors can’t get a return by conserving, they’ll try to get it by plowing it under. So, bye bye, Conservation Reserve Program. Hello, corn and soybeans.

An estimated 37 farm bill programs expired on Sept. 30. Congress cannot reauthorize or extend them without finding new sources of funding (Ha!) to offset the costs. As the law is written, these programs will revert to provisions from the 1938 and 1949 farm bills, the so-called permanent law agreements.

This doubtful outcome could be, well, not good, but OK. Permanent law was set when using the concept of parity, which means that the farmer should get back what he has in expenses plus a little profit. This year, with high grain prices due to ethanol demand and the drought, parity for dairy would be higher than the current sales on the market.

As of today, Washington wags predict that nothing will happen until the next administration takes over. Unless Congress (maybe a bunch of lame ducks with nothing to lose) comes back in November and decides to take action. So, basically, it’s up to us to get informed and get on the phone. Call your neighbors and call your congressmen. Tell them we need a good farm bill, one that helps people instead of corporations!

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

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2012

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