Congress has just passed an $8.7 billion farm bill (conveniently titled an "emergency spending bill" so it won't count against the federal budget) based on sectional greed, ideological stupidity, and the campaign contributions of agrichemical and food processing interests.
The bill includes $328 million for tobacco growers to make up for an expected (and hoped-for) decline in tobacco demand. It raises the caps on subsidies from $115,000 to $460,000 per farm, a boon to the largest growers. What it doesn't do is renew the Northeast Dairy Compact.
The bill comes in the wake of the so-called Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 which was designed to wean American farmers from government funds. That bill was passed when farm prices were high. Its supporters, blinded by free-market ideology, apparently thought that farm prices would always be high and that God, being a right-wing Republican, would reward them with good farming weather. Since 1996 we've had floods, hurricanes, drought and falling commodity prices. U.S. farm income dropped 13 percent last year and a drop of 6 percent is forecast this year. Farmers are losing their farms all over the country. The defeat of the Northeast Dairy Compact, which would have guaranteed New England farmers a fair price for their fluid milk, is expected to drive many north country dairy farmers out of business.
It's in the public's interest to subsidize agriculture. We need to make it profitable to farm, keep farmers on the land, and farms in production. Farm policy, as it is debated now, is based on dangerous assumptions that achieve the opposite.
U.S. farm policy views agricultural surplus as a problem whereas it should be viewed as a goal, as a hedge against population growth and as a protection against regional weather disasters. It's prudent, even if expensive, to store agricultural produce. Because surplus lowers commodity prices, farmers need price supports to guarantee that they receive a fair price for their surplus harvests. The American taxpayer subsidizes the nuclear, gas, oil, mining, pharmaceutical, and other established industries. We should happily subsidize agriculture as well. While there ought to be a cap on the subsidies, so that big farmers don't harvest all the money, it should be a national policy to keep agriculture solvent.
The goal of cheap food needs to be challenged. The right-wing Cato Institute boasts that in 1998 "food was cheaper than at any place at any time in world history." But food is cheap because farmers cannot get a fair price on the free market. While American farmers are driven off the land, "cheap" food is imported from third world countries where corporate-owned agriculture thrives on the exploitation of land and labor. The celebraters of cheap food are often the same folks who oppose pay raises for American workers -- that's hypocrisy. If Americans were paid fair wages, farmers could get a better price for their products.
Free market ideologues love to talk about the benefits of competition. But under free market rule, big producers, with secure financial backing, continually expand at the expense of small farmers. As an example, in the last two years 24 percent of all pork producers went out of business. Four corporations now control 58 percent of all pork processing. Huge industrial pork and chicken producers trash the environment, use cheap labor, and produce chemically laced products against which, in terms of price, small producers can't compete. American food oligarchs also ignore the voice of the consumer. When European consumers began demanding chemical-free food products, the large American food processors ignored them. Instead of moving away from chemical-dependence to meet the consumer demands of the European market, agribusiness interests pressured the U.S. government to manipulate trade policy in order to force Europe to buy its products. Free marketeers tout the free market when it works to their benefit. But they demand government assistance when competition hurts them.
The market works well in one respect. As with coffee and beer, the cheap, tasteless, and additive-laden products of big food processors have encouraged innovative small producers to enter the market with quality products. In agriculture, public subsidies should support ecologically friendly farming methods (as has been done, since the New Deal, with regard to soil conservation). We should also subsidize tobacco growers to wean them away from cancer cultivation.
We need a public policy to protect primary agricultural land from the pressures of development. Once land is lost to farming it is very hard to bring it back. With world population growing, we need more, not less, farmers. Towns and cities should be surrounded by protected greenways that support small farms and market gardeners.
We need to support the New England dairy industry even if dairy producers in the flat Midwestern states can produce milk for pennies less. It's insane to ship milk thousands of miles because we no longer produce it locally. Farms have value that cannot be measured on a banker's ledger. It's good for the soul to see corn growing and cows grazing.
Farmers and consumers need to unite and set goals for long-term sustainable agriculture. We need public policies that protect farmers from low-prices and natural calamities. We need to encourage a transition to ecological agriculture and the production of healthy food products demanded by informed consumers. If we had a sensible agricultural policy, we wouldn't need emergency spending measures to protect our agriculture from the vagaries of the free market.
Marty Jezer of Brattleboro, Vt., was a founding member of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, and appreciates comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.