The Four Most Important Letters

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By Cassidy Campbell Mueller of Riverdog Farm in Guinda, courtesy of Capay Valley Farm Shop

I bet you’ve heard it before, the big 4 letters so important to farmers, food processors, and eaters: USDA, or the United States Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for the federal government’s policies on agriculture and food. You would be surprised at how much your life is affected by this department—everything from the food pyramid to food inspection policies to the cost and availability of food at the grocery store. The USDA’s main piece of legislation is called The Farm Bill. Let’s back up a few decades. The main ideas of the farm bill grew out of the great depression in the 1930s. There have been 10 official Farm Bills since 1965. Of course there was a USDA before that, but not a ”farm bill.” What makes this bill so special is that it is omnibus. Instead of a bunch of separate laws floating around, all (or most) of the USDA’s policies are grouped together into one bill, which is voted on as a whole. This helps create broad support to pass laws that otherwise would not have survived the legislative process. The omnibus farm bill is updated every five years or so, the current one is called the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, which replaced the 2002 bill. Much of the legislation of the 2008 bill is set to expire in 2012 so we will be hearing a lot about changing policies in the upcoming year.

What exactly is there to change in this Bill anyway? On the current Farm Bill there are 15 titles, or separate policies. The bill has increased in size since 1965, when main titles of today, such as conservation and energy, weren’t even included. The latest titles are Horticulture and Livestock. Although the farm bill may seem like another large and distant part of our government, it has had effects in our own little Capay Valley. For example my parent’s farm applied for a grant to help pay for a solar installation. They received the grant, which paid 25 percent of the $140,000 total. Full Belly Farm and Haag Walnut Farm also applied and received the grant. The solar grant is under Title IX of the 2008 Farm Bill. This piece of legislation is constantly evolving, introducing new ideas and changing priorities. A new development in 2008 was the number of small organizations that lobbied congress for changes in the Farm Bill. Everyone from church organizations with soup kitchens to Capay Valley farmers wanted a say in how America eats. Did I say Capay Valley farmers? Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm went to DC in 2007 to help lobby for a different subsidies system. If you think that something needs to change in agriculture around here then follow Paul’s footsteps and bring it up with Congress in the 2012 debates.

Controversial matters relevant to our current and upcoming farm bill are:

  • The 2008 bill increased spending to about $288 billion—thus increasing the budget deficit. 37 federal aid programs that are set to expire in 2012 will no longer have funding, cutting out programs that have been supporting people and farms.
  • Subsidizing is a big part of the farm bill. The federal government has spent about $26 billion over the past 4 years on direct subsidies to farms. This means that the government pays farmers to grow commodities such as wheat and corn and to sell it cheaply. This has the general effect of lowering the cost of food in the US—our country has some of the cheapest food prices in the world! This seems pretty good for us right? Some people think so—like the huge monoculture growers who are pocketing thousands a year from the government. Other people have different ideas about the effects of subsidies.
  • Michael Pollan, a UC Berkeley professor, wrote a book accusing the farm bill of endorsing the practice of raising livestock in small, enclosed areas and feeding them cheap subsidized corn.
  • The crop subsidy system rewards production, meaning many farmers actually grow their crops for the payments, instead of what is good for their land, or what is actually needed.
  • The main subsidized crops are corn, wheat, cotton, peanuts, and rice. The farms that produce these crops are generally big, monoculture, businesses. Some people argue that these farmers, who are already rich, should not be receiving federal money, which they can buy bigger equipment and more acreage with, decreasing competition and pushing small businesses out.
  • Since farmers are getting paid for how much they grow, why not milk the system and get paid more? A joke about rice farmers, who have a cap of $50,000 subsidy money per farm yearly, is: “How do you increase your net farm income by 50 thousand dollars a year in rice country?” “You put up another mailbox.” (If you have another address, say for your wife or son, you can divide your farm, on paper, thus receiving the subsidy for each additional “farm”.)
  • Another perspective on this is that under Title IX of the 2008 bill subsidies were created to support the development of renewable energy.

What do you think? Should the federal government be funding subsidized food prices? Or the development of renewable energy sources? If that looks confusing, the following is what the USDA says the 2008 farm bill is all about:

“The 15 titles include administrative and funding authorities for programs that cover income and commodity price support, farm credit, and risk management; conservation though land retirement, stewardship of land and water resources, and farmland protection; food assistance and agricultural development efforts abroad and promotion of international access to American farm products; food stamps, domestic food distribution, and nutrition initiatives; rural community and economic development initiatives, including regional development, rural energy efficiency, water and waste facilities, and access to broadband technology; research on critical areas of the agricultural and food sector; accessibility and sustainability of forests; encouraging production and use of agricultural and rural renewable energy sources; and initiatives for attracting and retaining beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.”


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