Farmers weigh in on facets of the Farm Bill

Posted: Thursday, February 6, 2014 12:30 am
By Tessa Edick
For Columbia-Greene Media


Connecting health to what you eat is vital. Everything you need to know about food you learn at the farm. The F word is officially trending. Farm to Table, Foodie, Fresh and Locavore Love has me wondering — is this the Farm Bill America needs and what exactly is the upside for family farms in the Hudson Valley?


The Farm Bill affects everyone who eats, buys, sells or grows food. It’s a piece of legislation that is renewed in Congress every five years. I’ve been ignorant to its complexity which means it is out of my wheelhouse as a subject, yet my devotion to bringing awareness to our food choices and sources as a driver of economic development in our agricultural community and commitment for us to feed nutrient dense foods to kids at school lunch compelled me to dig in, understand more and share.


U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) has made the Farm Bill a priority as a member of the House Agriculture Committee and given the rural character of the 19th District he serves. Gibson authored a number of provisions in the bill with support from Vermont Congressman Peter Welch and Oregon Congressman Greg Walden that will benefit New York farmers and rural communities.


The official H.R. 2642, Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act of 2013 — commonly called the “Farm Bill” — sets U.S. federal agriculture policy for five years.


Gibson explained why FARRM Act of 2013 is exciting, “This bill represents a significant victory for our local farmers, overhauling the safety net program for dairy farmers, encouraging the growth and sustainability of local and regional agriculture and organic farming, protecting conservation programs, and helping beginning farmers access the capital they need to enter the field. Agriculture is still the primary driver of our economy in Upstate New York, and it is imperative we strengthen our farms for the future. This means ensuring an appropriate safety net for farmers when times are tough, inspiring a new generation of farmers to take up the profession, and helping our rural communities expand.”


The first Farm Bill, known as the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, was developed to assure everyone deserved to eat, farmers had viable livelihoods and our soil and water weren’t polluted.


Moreover, in an effort to address corn prices (when they hit a low price of $0), hunger in America, deterioration of soil and unfair export practices, the Farm Bill addressed these challenges and ensured farmers could expect fair pricing on the products they produced and that we all deserved healthy food.


The intention seems simple enough for us to all agree — but somehow the 15 farm bills that addressed these issues today leave us all asking how the Farm Bill mission derailed to favor corporate interests over those of consumers and farmers and how subsidies are issued to those that don’t even own land or farm?


Given the many “titles” the Farm Bill highlights as categories — Nutrition, Commodities, Conservation, Energy, Organic Ag, Trade, Credit, Rural Development, Horticulture, Research, Forestry, Crop Insurance, Commodity Futures, Trade & Taxes and Miscellaneous — it covers just about every human touch point.


In the most recent 2008 Farm Bill called the “Food, Conservation and Energy” Act, the title “Nutrition” received some 68 percent of the funding with programs we know as SNAP (food stamps) and initiatives that promote local food like farmers markets. The title “Commodities” provided subsidies to farms or companies growing mostly commodity crops like corn, cotton, wheat, rice and soybean. Though it continuously attracts public scrutiny, controversy and intense lobbying efforts, only about 15 percent ($42 billion) of the Farm Bill is devoted to commodity payments for the production of corn, soybeans, wheat and other non-perishable crops.


Rick Osofsky of the multi-generational Hudson Valley Ronnybrook Farm Dairy shared his hopeful insight. “The major historic problems with Federal farm legislation has been, and continues to be, under the new Farm Bill, the large sums [of money] dedicated to the corporate mid-west farms,” he aid. “We believe the [recent] Farm Bill did improve upon, if only slightly, the present price support system. Under the existing law, the government, in some convoluted way, provides a safety net when the price farmers receive for their milk falls below a certain level. It only deals with the price of the product and not the costs of production. It is our understanding that you will now be allowed to purchase ‘margin’ insurance that will pay individual farmers should the margin between the price farmers receive for milk and the cost of producing that milk shrink to a point where you are not making any money. The cost of the insurance will vary depending on the amount of “margin” the individual is insuring. Way too early to see how it will work but nonetheless an interesting compromise.”


We have been without a Farm Bill since the end of September 2013 which meant no certainty with regards to risk management and now we can applaud the House and the Senate for the passage of the bill to allow the Agriculture Department to begin planning implementation of what White House spokesman Jay Carney said is true — President Barack Obama will sign it into law.


Frustration seems to sum up the feeling from many farmers I asked about impact to their family farm. Many knew very little about the bill specifics — how it benefitted or hurt their family farms or if they could expect any upside?


When I inquired about the Farm Bill effect on the Cabot Cheese Cooperative, Agri-Mark spokesperson, Doug DiMento explained it simply, “The farmer side of the industry was unsuccessful getting a production management plan that would prevent small milk surpluses from causing farm milk prices to drop sharply, which is often the case. However, we ended up with a better margin protection plan for farmers and a new dairy product donation program that will help both the needy and U.S. dairy farm families.”


More than a year overdue, the $1 trillion FARRM Act after several years of setbacks and struggles to reach a consensus, was approved on a strong bipartisan vote of 251-166, with 162 Republicans joining 89 Democrats in favor.


Ted Dobson of Equinox Farm Berkshires is less confident in the new bill, “As far as I know the farm bill does very little to nothing for small and medium scale organic farms. The bill is a giant taxpayer subsidy for large and super large petrochemical, GMO based agricultural entities, large commercial dairies, giant feed lot entities, huge ranches, real big CA & Arizona vegetable farms. In other words the farms that supply the food that winds up on supermarket shelves and are the fundamental ingredients for everything that health wise is ailing American( the soil, water, air & people). The farm bill is for those that are part of the source depleting American agricultural system. The small and medium organic farms are doing their part to part ways from this Goliath.”


The new Farm Bill does include solid investments for beginning new farmers in local and organic foods with a view to change, but unfortunately the cuts to conservation were criticized since demand for these programs is at an all-time high.


The bill did trim funding for food stamps by about 1 percent and ends direct subsidy payments to farmers. It also consolidates 23 duplicative conservation programs into 13. It gives crop growers a flexible safety net that includes a choice between price-based and revenue-based risk management tools.


I read many opinions about the bill falling short regarding all categories, the power of the farm lobby in Washington, huge taxpayer subsidies to only a few large agribusinesses and a multiple entity rule allowing for lots of “double dipping,” as well as achievements for organic programs and Wisconsin’s 3rd District Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI) stating what’s not getting fixed in this bill — “$150 million in subsidy payments to Brazilian cotton farmers — the average taxpayer would go crazy if they knew,” he said.


What we need is a bill that protects our soil, air and water, rewards farmers for being stewards of the land and feeding us well, puts fresh, healthy food in our schools and communities, helps young people secure viable livelihoods in agriculture, restores fair pricing in the marketplace and re-establishes our trust in nutrition and wellness every time we eat. If you ate today — thank a farmer.


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