RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Healthy Food Should Drive Farm Bill

For the past two years, the US Congress has tried, and failed, to craft a new farm bill, a piece of legislation that sets subsidies and programs in agriculture, food policy, environmental incentives for landowners, aid for rural towns and education for young farmers. Among other things, the old bill, which has sent direct payments to farmers and provided financial help after weather crises, not to mention setting up educational programs in sustainable and urban agriculture and feeding needy Americans, expired nearly a year ago. To cover the gap, Congress agreed to extend it for a year.

But that extension runs out Sept. 30, and the future is in doubt. The latest wrinkle is a buzz from Congress that agriculture and food aid should appear in two different bills. While the old idea of food stamps was partly to absorb agricultural surpluses, they argue, new food aid should come from some other place.

This makes a little bit of sense, in a world where more than half our food comes from other continents, travelling an average of 1,400 miles to get to our tables. It seems insane to ask the question, but are food and agriculture still linked? At a time when “logistics” run so smoothly, does it matter whether we eat bananas from South America or peaches from a neighborhood orchard?

Tagging right along behind that question is the question of whether it matters for Americans to own our own food companies. American-made Smithfield Meats, America’s largest pork producer, may soon be sold to a Chinese conglomerate. The result would be that, short-term, Americans would export more pork to China. Long-term, of course, our hams and sausages would come from China.

And, with the Smithfield question comes the question of whether it matters for Americans to own our own land. One idiotic proposal passed last year by a Missouri General Assembly that must have been drunk on Budweiser (once owned by the St. Louis Busch family, now owned by a Belgian conglomerate) allowed for sale of 1% of our farmland to “foreign” corporations. Fortunately, Gov. Jay Nixon (D) vetoed that bill but the General Assembly vows to overturn the veto.

Most Americans, indeed, can’t identify where their food comes from. Even farmers feel this disconnect, dumping their harvests into bins with everyone else’s, no differentiation or pride in how it was raised. Being paid by the pound, after all, means raising as many pounds as possible by any means possible. It’s a bottom-line proposition without much fun in it.

But the future of farming isn’t with the old geezers who bought into the biotech revolution and see their bottom lines as the whole point. The kids of today have different ideas. And, I might say, better ideas. They have learned a little bit, not enough, but a little, about sustainability and organics and what they’ve learned makes sense. They want to learn more.

Some of my young neighbors have built chicken tractors, which are wheeled chicken coops dragged from one bit of pasture to another so the hens can live outside, feasting on bugs and weeds. To guard the hens from predators, they’re buying donkeys, llamas and dogs that bond with the prey animals. The resulting eggs and cooking chickens are a far cry from the frozen boneless chickens of the past, raised in giant Confined Animal Feeding Operations.

The young farmers are rotating cattle from paddock to paddock, stocking pasture the way their dads used diesel to cut and bale hay. My next door neighbor, a thirty-something in the midst of buying out his dad, is raising fresh-water shrimp, of all things, and harvesting elderberries from the patches Dad once considered weeds.

As for me, raising much but not all of what we need, I am proud to buy from these kids. Are their prices higher than the big box store? I have no idea. It’s been so long since I’ve compared that it doesn’t matter any more. I can save money by buying used cars, used computers, used clothes, but I don’t want to think about buying used foods!

My personal food system is robust, satisfying and fairly secure, but I know that not everyone has the privilege of living near kids raising pastured meats and wild fruits. Should the farm bill help ya’all? Or should it, as the commodity raisers want you believe, cut food away from farms?

For big farmers, who are enjoying fairly robust prices in corn, soybeans and other commodities, thanks to government programs like ethanol and biodiesel incentives, the old farm bill has been a pretty good deal. They’ve been able to profit at the market while also receiving direct payments. Nice.

For consumers of processed foods, which means most Americans, the old farm bill has been pretty good. When government subsidizes crops and creates buying programs to absorb surpluses like the current glut of sugars on the market, prices on processed foods stay low.

It’s up to us to weigh in on the kind of agriculture we want in the future. Let’s go for a farm bill that puts food back in the farmland agenda.

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

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2013

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