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Farm bill: mostly fertilizer

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With the recent passage of the Farm Bill --- a monster package of federal subsidies covering the next six to 10 years --- Congress has shoveled billions upon billions of dollars, largely where they aren’t needed.

            The conservative American Farm Bureau Federation is pleased, however. “Prompt implementation of the Farm Bill is imperative,” says bureau president Bob Stallman in a written statement. “Adoption… assures farmers and our lenders that we will have an adequate safety net in place and prevents the need to rely on emergency assistance in the future.”

            But is the Farm Bill a “safety net” or a trampoline for ever higher-flying agribusinesses?

 

From the heart of the Farm Belt, the Chicago Tribune offered one answer. “That stench coming out of Washington,” said a May 6 Trib editorial, “isn’t from one of those smelly hog farms, but it might as well be.”

            The editorial rattled off figures that have made headlines all over the country: The bill will boost US farm subsidies 70 percent over the next decade. The 10-year tab will come to between $170 and $190 billion. And as the editors said, the money won’t be going to Old McDonald and the family farm, but to big commodity producers. The Farm Bill is complex, but the subsidy mechanism works in a simple way: it gives certain producers (and not others) money to make up for market prices that are too low.

            Remember, this bill has come only a few years after Washington was spouting “freedom to farm” language --- touting a “market-based” approach that was supposed to wean agriculture from subsidies. Not that all subsidies or market-controls are bad: Progressives long have wanted government to shift policy gears and support small farms, environmental protection for rural areas, incubation of organic and sustainable farming methods, and so forth.

            But this is a crucial election year, especially in the US Senate, where both big parties hope to emerge with a majority. And so the struggle for political clout in Farm Country has grown feverish --- and it’s agribusiness, not small operators, who can bring the clout to market.

            Hence the 2002 Farm Bill is a gift to big farmers who grow certain grains and other commodities: wheat, corn, rice, peanuts, etc. There’s also a regional tilt: The subsidies, loan guarantees, and other supports go largely to the “red” states as opposed to the “blue” --- the colors of the post-Election 2000 political map. (The reds are the states that went for George W. Bush; the blues are those which went for Al Gore.) But ironically, Bush’s Office of Management and Budget opposed the House version, claiming it would spend too much “at a time of uncertainty,” target the wrong farmers, and jeopardize foreign agricultural markets.

            Nonetheless, Bush signed the final bill. This has provoked outrage from other countries --- not only because it seems to contradict “free trade,” but also because it would affect human health. Stateside, the Washington-based Public Citizen said one Farm Bill provision would cause “confusion” about irradiated foods by allowing some of them to be labeled “pasteurized.” Food irradiation is rightly a hot-button issue in Europe and other countries, including, of course, the US.

 

The Washington-based Environmental Working Group, which has been highly critical of the bill, has published a map of state “winners and losers.” Sure enough, according to the map, states like Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, and others, will gain more than $1 billion each over five years under the bill’s provisions.

            Agricultural states like Pennsylvania, though, will each lose more than $1 billion, says EWG. New York State’s bottom line, says the group, will be “neutral.”

            How do things look from the ground here?

            “We believe [the Farm Bill] is a step in the right direction,” says Jessica Crittenden, spokesperson for the New York State’s Agriculture and Markets department. But she says the bill is disappointing in some ways. For example, she says, it doesn’t include the “Dairy Compact,” a mechanism which New York and other regional farm advocates had sought. (The compact would have established a multi-state governing entity to keep dairy prices stable, and thus help dairy farmers keep their heads above water.) She says there are some measures that can stabilize dairy prices. Indeed, the bill establishes three-and-a-half year, $1 billion-plus program to that effect.

            But one has to wonder if these provisions, short of a compact, will be enough. As Crittenden says, “the dairy industry traditionally has prices that are up, down, all over the place” --- a tendency that puts all players at risk.

            Overall, she says, says state ag officials and farmers are “disappointed” in the bill, mostly because it favors the big commodities producers. “We won’t see much from it,” she says. She explains that New York State, though it produces a great diversity of agro-products, is comparatively weak on wheat, rice, soybeans, cotton, and other crops that will get the goodies.

            Wayne County-based farmer and agricultural writer Elizabeth Henderson is more trenchant. She calls the Farm Bill “more of the same bad policy we have had since the 1950s, large payments to the biggest farms.” The “real winners,” she says, will be “grain traders, meatpackers, and multinational corporations” like “Cargill, ADM [Archer Daniels Midland], and a few others” that sell the commodities on international markets.

            Henderson, who operates Peacework Farm and works with Genesee Valley Organic Community Supported Agriculture, helps put the dollar discrepancy into perspective. Peacework Farm produces 70-odd crops on 15 rented acres; the cooperative urban-suburban-rural farming enterprise draws individuals and families from the whole region. Recently, says Henderson, Peacework got its first federal payment --- $470 and change --- to help with the expense of federal organic certification fees. (The feds, with much controversy, have been codifying standards and certifications for foods labeled organic --- that is, foods grown with natural composting methods, and without the use of artificial pesticides, herbicides, and so forth.)

            Compare Peacework’s cut of the action to what the big guys can get: Before passage of the Farm Bill, the Senate had lowered the maximum payment from the current $460,000 to a still-generous $275,000 per recipient. In the House-Senate conference process, however, the limit was boosted to $360,000. Moreover, as the Washington Post reported, there are “loopholes” by which recipients can engineer multiple maxed-out payments. And as the Chicago Tribune said, in recent years “just 10 percent of the crop producers have grabbed two-thirds of the subsidies…” It looks like this rule will hold for the next decade, at least.

            Yet Elizabeth Henderson isn’t entirely downbeat. She notes the new Farm Bill includes more funding for minority farmers, as well as measures to give redress for past federal discrimination against Black farmers specifically. She says, too, that the bill-related Conservation Security and Community Food Security programs will get a little more money, which will be used to help low-income people and communities.

            She’s also positive about the bill’s provision of $3 million annually for organic agriculture research. (Interest in organic foods may increase, too, after a recent Consumers Union report, which established that organics really do contain much lower levels of pesticide residues than do “traditional” foods.) The Downstate-based National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture has looked at this angle. Organic-agriculture advocates have both won and lost, says a backgrounder from the group. At one point, the backgrounder explains, there was hope the Farm Bill would create an Organic Research Program. This would have been around 50 percent more generous that what the bill ended up with: a mere “Organic Research Initiative.”

 

The Farm Bill will pump more than $17 billion over 10 years into improving water quality, protecting wetlands and open spaces, and setting aside marginal farmland.

            Such developments are among the “victories” that please the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.

            Yet when measured against the bill’s $190 billion total, the environmental package’s $17 billion --- less than $2 billion a year for reclaiming the agricultural and ecological integrity of a country as vast as ours --- doesn’t sound like a big deal or a good one.

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