We might all be political junkies here, but just in case we aren't all agriculture policy wonks, here's a bit of background on the farm bill.
The farm bill is:
- a legacy of the New Deal
- passed every 5-7 years
- important to everyone who eats or pays taxes (not just farmers!)
- the root cause of many unhealthy aspects of our food system
- formerly a pretty good way to help small farmers
- now (among other things) a big fat payoff to big business
- a source of laws not only about commodity subsidies but also food stamps, conservation, and more
- usually ignored by most Americans
For more information, check out the farm bill section of the Recipe for America website (note: this website is for Kossacks, by Kossacks so if you'd like to get involved, email me).
The Senate's version of the bill is mostly a done deal - but it's not yet. The week of Nov 5, they will debate the bill and numerous amendments in front of the whole Senate. That means that NOW is a good time to call your Senators. If you're not a farmer, just think about how blown away your Senators will be when the get flooded with calls from non-farmers who care about their food!
A summary of the contents of this diary (in case you want to know up front what to say when you call your Senators without having to read the whole diary):
Please Vote For:
- The Dorgan-Grassley Amendment (word on the street is every vote counts!)
Please Vote Against:
- Mandatory NAIS
- The increased EQIP payment limits set by Senators Leahy, Crapo, and Roberts
Thank You For:
- The Clinton-Brown FOOD for a Health America Act Provisions
- Funding Community Food Projects
- The Packer Ban
- The Livestock Title
- The Expansion of CSP
And now, for your reading pleasure...
The Clinton-Brown Provisions
Senators Hillary Clinton and Sherrod Brown together introduced measures to bring more fresh, local food to underserved communities.
Traditionally, the farm bill spends a huge chunk of change to encourage a surplus of commodities like corn, soy, wheat, and rice and then spends more money (as food stamps) to help impoverished Americans buy those commodities back as cheap, unhealthy, processed foods. My hope is that the Clinton-Brown provisions can start to break that cycle.
The Brown-Clinton FOOD (Food Outreach and Opportunities Development) for a Healthy America Act provisions in the farm bill include:
- Providing affordable access to healthy foods
- Expanding usage of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards at farmers' markets
- Creating a new Healthy Food Access Center with sub-granting authority and $7 million mandatory funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Expanding the Farmers' Market Program for seniors by $50 million over 5 years
- Allowing the National School Lunch Program to purchase locally produced food for school meals
- Expanding the Farmers' Market Promotion Program from $5 million over 5 years to $30 million over 5 years
- Creating pilot projects to evaluate Health and Nutrition Promotion in the Food Stamp Program
- Expanding the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to more schools, and to every state in the country
Note: The quoted text was taken from a press release off Sherrod Brown's site so it most likely paints an overly-rosy picture of these provisions.
Community Food Projects (CFP)
CFP is a competitive grant program that gives one-time grants to projects that bring food security to low income communities. The intent is that the projects use the grant money to establish themselves as self-sufficient programs that can sustain themselves financially thereafter.
Previously, the program received $5 million annually - but under the 2007 farm bill, the House planned to give it $0. The Senate, on the other hand, is giving it $10 million annually!!! Woohoo!!!
For more information on CFP, check out the Recipe for America site here.
Security Stewardship Program
The fantastic CSP program came out of the Senate committee with... a new name! And a few other more important changes. This is a program that provides incentives for farmers who use eco-friendly practices on their land. It's a fairly new program (it was started in 2002).
Just think - instead of giving farmers a financial incentive (via commodity subsidies) to produce as much as possible (often synonymous with abusing the air, water, and soil), CSP gives them incentives to conserve soil, water, air, energy, plant and animal life. This is really revolutionary - or could be if Congress made more land eligible for it!
The Senate version of the farm bill makes CSP available for many more acres of farmland (and therefore, many more farmers) than before - a major step forward in letting CSP reach its full potential in promoting conservation. It also allows organic farmers to simultaneously establish eligibility for the CSP and organic certification. Many thanks to Tom Harkin for his efforts to expand and improve CSP!
Total Crap from Senator Crapo (and Leahy and Roberts)
My least favorite of the many conservation programs is EQIP: The Environmental Quality Incentive Program. This program pays farmers up to 75% of the cost of environmental improvements, but some of those "improvements" aren't quite what you and I would consider as such.
For example, a factory farm can get EQIP money to build a manure lagooon. What?! Why pay a factory farm for doing what the law requires it to do anyway. That's like having cops pull over motorists and give them money as a thank you for going the speed limit and wearing their seat belts.
Harkin wished to set a payment limitation at $240,000 over five years but Leahy, Crapo, and Roberts moved to increase it to $450,000. Senators Harkin and Conrad argued that lower payment limitations would allow the government to spread the money out over more applicants, which would help more small and moderate sized farmers. Unfortunately, the amendment passed 13-8. The 8 Senators who deserve thanks are: Senators Harkin (D-IA), Brown (D-OH), Casey (D-PA), Klobuchar (D-MN), Baucus (D-MT), Stabenow (D-MI) Conrad (D-ND) and Grassley (R-IA).
Please call your Senators about this! Tell them you wish to restore the limitation on EQIP payments to $240k over 5 years.
For more information about conservation programs in the farm bill, click here.
Commodity Payment Limitations
Often, people I've talked to consider the farm bill synonymous with commodity payments. Certainly the Commodity Title is one of the most significant pieces of the farm bill, considering it accounts for a huge percentage of the money spent in the bill. It's also one of the most misunderstood, counterintuitive pieces of the bill.
What do I mean by that? I can't tell you how many times I've heard people (including smart, educated people) say "If only we subsidized carrots instead of subsidizing corn, we'd have cheaper carrots and we'd get rid of all this high fructose corn syrup!" Except, it doesn't quite work that way. The subsidies drive prices down and create surpluses, so if we subsidized carrots, we'd end up screwing over carrot farmers.
Another idea that came from Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) this year (although I bet you Grover Norquist thought of it first) sought to eliminate subsidies entirely. That's not the right answer either.
The "scrap the subsidies" idea is often followed up with a statement that without subsidies, "farmers can respond to the changes in demand." That's wrong. Because each individual farmer has no control over commodity market prices, it is always in every farmer's interest to produce as much as possible - regardless of demand.
Programs like the Conservation Security/Stewardship Program (CSP) address this by rewarding eco-friendly behavior instead of rewarding maximum production. Getting rid of subsidies does nothing but put more farmer's into bankruptcy, leading to greater consolidation and industrialization. There's nothing good about that.
On the other hand, capping subsidies isn't really a bad idea. Just think, if there's a cap of $250,000 (as proposed by Senators Dorgan and Grassley), $250,000 to a small farmer is a lot more meaningful than $250,000 to an enormous farming operation. The little guy doesn't get hurt as he or she would if subsidies were done away with completely, but the subsidy caps ensure that taxpayers aren't paying out a ton to huge operations that don't need it quite so badly.
The following text comes from the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture:
The Senate adopted the same kind of weak payment limitation reforms that the House passed in its bill. An amendment offered by Senator's Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) will put a hard cap of $250,000 on commodity payments, close loopholes and shift the savings to rural development, beginning and minority farmers, conservation, nutrition and anti- hunger programs. The vote is expected to be very close.
This is a great issue to call your Senators on. Ask them to support the Dorgan-Grassley amendment to the farm bill.
The very fact that the Senate even included a livestock title is a BIG DEAL! In a good way. Below I've listed some highlights.
First, with me while I give a bit of background. A common model for raising livestock such as, say, chicken involves a processing company contracting with a grower who raises the chickens. The processing company provides the chickens and a few other things (food, medicine, transportation) and the grower does the rest.
The grower must invest thousands in all sorts of infrastructure required to raise the chickens. Once they've done that - with the huge debts they must recoup via raising chickens - they are (pardon the pun) sitting ducks. They are completely at the mercy of the processing company. After all - if they complain, the processing company can yank the contract.
There's more information on this at the Recipe for America site here but the basic point is that the growers fall victim to all kinds of abuses that the livestock title seeks to correct.
Ban on Mandatory Arbitration: Often processing companies include "mandatory arbitration" in their contracts with growers to keep growers from taking them to court or launching a class action lawsuit. With the livestock title, the contracts can only specify voluntary arbitration. The House bill does not include a ban on mandatory arbitration, so we'll want to follow this to see if it makes it into the final joint bill.
Other Fairness Provisions:
- Allowing growers at least three days to review or cancel contracts.
- Forbidding companies from requiring growers to make additional investments without offering additional compensation or equivalent consideration to the grower.
- Requiring 90-day notice for contract termination (for growers who make capital investments of $100k in facilities or equipment in reliance on the contract).
- Making it illegal for companies to discriminate against or coerce growers who form or join producer associations.
- Protecting a grower's right to discuss contracts with business associates, neighbors, and other producers.
Special Counsel for Agricultural Competition: The title also creates a Special Counsel for Agricultural Competition to investigate & go after violators of the Packers and Stockyards Act.
The Packer Ban: Green Bay football fans, sit tight. I might be pro-Bears but I promise no one is outlawing your favorite team. This measure bans packers from owning livestock more than 14 days before slaughter. This is GREAT NEWS!
Essentially, this is about fair competition. When huge packers (Cargill, Smithfield, etc) own or feed livestock in enormous factory farms, individual farmers hardly stand a chance. Because the packers always have a large captive supply, they can drive prices down for the entire market. The packer ban, if it makes it into the final version of the farm bill, will prevent this.
Our side has been fighting for this since at least 2002 so it's not over yet. It's in the Senate version of the bill at present but it needs to make it into the joint version of the bill too.
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL)
Years after Congress set mandatory COOL in motion, consumers still lack the ability to know where their food comes from. Seriously, why is it easy enough for manufacturers to tell us where our T-shirts were made but they can't tell us where our food was grown or raised?
The Senate version of the bill is taking COOL a bit further, requiring country of origin labeling on beef, lamb, pork, and goat meat. Woohoo! Maybe in five more years they'll let us know where our fruits and veggies are from too!
The National Animal ID System (NAIS)
The much-diaried National Animal ID System (NAIS) is like a PATRIOT Act for animals and it promises to put a lot of small farmers out of business. You can see more info on it here.
It's hard for me to quickly summarize what's wrong with NAIS (beyond what I said above) because there is so much wrong with it that it would fill up the whole diary. Click the link above if you'd like more background, and definitely CALL YOUR SENATORS and tell them you oppose mandatory NAIS!
That's all I've got, kids! See, it wasn't so painful. Next time, when the farm bill's in the news again, maybe I won't have to bribe you with diary titles about penises to get you to read about it :)
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