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The Farm Bill, Our Politicians In Washington, and the Passing Comet

For most Americans, the Farm Bill is akin to Halley’s Comet – a nearly mythical yet ultimately predictable phenomenon which periodically grabs our attention, if only briefly.

On a four to six year cycle, the Farm Bill reappears to us through stories in which powerful Congressional chairmen surreptitiously strong-arm their colleagues into diverting ever greater federal subsidies into the bottomless pockets of commodity producers and their agribusiness enablers.  In the two most recent sightings of the Farm Bill in 2002 and 2008, a counter-narrative emerged in which intrepid environmentalists and community food system advocates break down Congress’ closed doors with their demands for a FOOD and Farm Bill.  These comfortable clichés contain more than a little truth but the emerging 2012 Farm Bill was knocked out of its familiar orbit by a draconian new proposal introduced by the House Republican leadership on July 27.  We can expect the business-as-usual commodity kickbacks to survive this development but the alternative vision supporting local, sustainable and organic food systems now faces serious jeopardy.

The biggest surprise prior to Friday’s proposal was the relatively bipartisan and bicameral agreement with which the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and the House Committee on Agriculture completed their respective draft Farm Bills.  Both versions included monumental spending levels triggered by unprecedented outlays for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly referred to as Food Stamps) as well as the elimination of guaranteed direct payments made to commodity producers regardless of what they plant or where prices stand.  Nearly 50 million Americans collectively received more than $72 billion in SNAP benefits during 2011 and the economic downturn is certain to keep these numbers high.  More than three times greater than in 2000, these spending levels mean a certain floor fight if and when the House and Senate Committees can reconcile the differences between their drafts (more on that later).  The elimination of direct payments is largely symbolic since new provisions related to subsidized crop insurance premiums found in both the Senate and House drafts will enable the farmers who previously received the payments to reap comparable benefits through other means without changing how they operate.

One can sense that both the Senate and House Agriculture leadership realized that a relatively united front within and between their Committees would increase the chances of passing a Farm Bill during the stretch drive of the highly partisan 2012 campaign season.  Their respective drafts came historically close to consensus though the significant differences that do exist reflect the underlying political and economic tensions dividing agricultural policy on Capitol Hill.  Make no mistake, agribusiness reigns supreme and largely determines the federal agricultural agenda but the broad and growing coalition of environmental and food system interests has gained genuine traction in capturing modest but significant funding for its initiatives.  Truthfully, agribusiness interests will never cede the billions in annual appropriations that grease the industrial treadmill keeping farmers dependent on purchased resources including seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and other chemical inputs.  As Jack Nicholson playing Charley Partana in Prizzi’s Honor notes about his underworld bosses, “The Prizzis would rather eat their children then part with their money and they are VERY fond of their children.”  Proponents of local, sustainable and organic food will do better to focus on establishing a parallel network of programs across USDA’s mission areas including conservation, marketing, research, credit and rural development that offer viable alternatives to farmers as the industrial model continues to crumble.

While neither of the draft Farm Bills that came out of Committee could be described as friendly to local, organic and sustainable interests, the Senate version which the full body subsequently passed is certainly the more supportive.  This bill contains $85 million in mandatory funding over five years for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, a major initiative to prevent further concentration in land ownership and scores a huge victory for conservation by reattaching basic soil and water conservation requirements to federal crop insurance subsidies.  The Senate Farm Bill also doubles funding for the Farmers Market Promotion Program (renamed the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program to accommodate additional direct marketing channels) to $20 million annually for five years.  Organic initiatives also saw increases with the Organic Research and Extension Initiative which funds multidisciplinary academic research with direct farmer participation pegged for $80 million in total and the critically important National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) fully funded – a major achievement for keeping small- and medium-sized farmers in the certification program.

The Senate Farm Bill has plenty of deficiencies, including more than $6 billion in conservation program funding cuts over the next decade, but still represents the best deal that local, sustainable and organic interests could broker in the current sky-is-falling budget environment in Washington.  It would certainly been the high ground should a Conference Committee be convened to hash out differences with the egregious House Committee Farm Bill.  The House draft imposes even greater conservation spending cuts, weakens already deficient regulatory measures that would further expedite release of genetically modified organisms and completely defund the NOCCSP.

The Scorched Earth Option

However, even the unpleasant prospect of trying to salvage the Senate victories while minimizing the House setbacks looks good in comparison to the outright ugly alternative dropped on the table by the House Republican leadership last week.  Declining to bring the Committee on Agriculture’s draft to the House floor for a vote, the Republican leadership this week will instead offer its own proposal for a one-year extension of the existing Farm Bill that has dire consequences for local, sustainable and organic interest.

The House leadership is seeking to fast-track its one-year extension proposal ostensibly to provide disaster relief to beleaguered crop and livestock farmers affected by this summer’s devastating drought.  The bill would finance this relief by imposing $761 million in cuts to conservation funding to be extracted solely from the 2013 budget.  Even worse, the one-year extension would eliminates all mandatory funding for  virtually the entire slate of local, sustainable and organic initiatives that have been carefully nurtured for years, including the Farmers Market Promotion Program, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, NOCCSP and many more.  These cuts would bring to an immediate end years of dedicated effort to create viable alternative production and marketing opportunities for farmers with the least access to conventional information and credit resources. Astonishingly, the bill re-news the indefensible direct payments with $5 billion in new funding, thereby pulling back from the grave the program which both the Senate and House Committees had agreed to terminate.  Remember that this entire proposal is being pitched as essential drought relief.  As Lily Tomlin said, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”

There’s no telling at the moment how far the House Republican leadership will push its draconian Farm Bill proposal but with support the from spending-averse Tea Party members it could become a powerful prop for attacking the excesses of federal spending.  One might suspect that defunding the USDA’s core local, sustainable and organic programs at the same time would provide that leadership with an added incentive.  However, those programs have defenders, including some, even Republican, in the House, more in the Senate and a powerful if reticent one in the White House.  As with the Congressional stalemate over tax cuts, the Farm Bill debate will continue unfolding with no guarantee of resolution before Election Day, or even this year.  The only certainty is that local, sustainable and organic advocates must remain constantly engaged in the legislative process to protect what they value.

As they say in Washington, if you are not at the table, you’ll be on the menu.

Mark Keating has worked in the natural, sustainable, organic and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes stints in commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy and academia. While working for the USDA National Organic Program between 1999 and 2002 Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production.  He spent two more years with the USDA Marketing Services Branch working to develop and promote farmers markets.  Mark also worked for the NOP in 2010. An inveterate believer that naturally raised and locally distributed food offers the best opportunity for human health and planetary survival, Mark lives in the Kentucky Bluegrass with his wife and their daughter.

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