Letter From Langdon: Farm Vision

The Farm Bill could do a lot. It could maintain the diversity of the food supply, and those who grow and raise it. It could insure we have another generation of independent farmers. It could, but it probably won't.

Share This:

The House of Representatives is taking up the Farm Bill

They’ll argue, rant and rave. But the Senate has already done the heavy lifting, and in the end (this year or the next), the House will put on the blinders and a Farm Bill will be passed not much different than the one before. 

Or the one before that. 

I’m sorry for those who are opposed, but there will be subsidies for major crops. Corporations make way too much money processing these crops (and making food “products”) to leave their planted acreages to chance. 

Food stamps will continue to be issued to the poor. We worry too much about handing out free food and way too little about why food assistance is even necessary. Are there lazy people on welfare? Probably. Are there elderly people, poor families, kids and the disabled who need our help? Certainly. 

The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (aka The Farm Bill) won’t reform the hungry. 

It just feeds them. 

Some things never change. Rural development relies almost exclusively on U.S. Department of Agriculture grants and loans to rebuild aging infrastructure, hospitals, and rural industry. It’s important to us. Especially if we are to maintain a good rural workforce for all kinds of things like food and energy independence. 

Many times rural communities just don’t have the tax base or favorable ratings for bonds to work. Or we don’t have an opportunity to profit from local investments. Think about that free rest stop along a lonely stretch of interstate highway. And where is that clean water coming from? Not from downtown.

Another thing that probably isn’t going to change is that the Farm Bill will favor out-of-whack subsidies at the expense of food diversity. “Reform” will consist mainly of a new crop of farm program acronyms, but it will all be more of the same. 

The general perception is that Congress writes farm bills to get votes. As a subsidized farmer, the cost of my vote may seem high. But most off-the-farm folks have no idea of the huge checks I write for seed, fertilizer, herbicides and fuel. Every check comes with built-in profit for them — my suppliers. 

Farmers simply pass along government money to deeper corporate pockets. 

Richard Oswald
We have low-cost housing here thanks to rural development funds and the Farm Bill.

There are some rich farmers who could survive without the Farm Bill. Thanks to efforts to re-establish payment limits we now know that Congress sees farmers making $750,000, or married farm couples earning $1.5 million (there are about 1,500 of them), as needing 15 percent less help with crop insurance than the rest of us. 

I guess you have to draw the line somewhere.

My money is for all-risk crop insurance. Crop insurance has taken a real beating in the press. You need to know, I sacrifice about 15 to 20 percent of the value of my crop just to pay my share of the premium. And, yes, the government does pay about the same amount I do. (Thanks to Congress drawing the line, rich farmers will now pay about 17 percent.) 

But crop insurance and other farm bill perks aren’t done to please me as much as to please agribusiness lobbyists who vote early and often with campaign dollars. They want me to grow, and plant, and buy as much as I can without hesitation. It’s also the reason why so many farmers have left behind other types of crops, and livestock. 

They follow the money, and that’s where the money leads.

Seed companies have been swallowed and digested by patent laws that set artificially high prices for seeds even when the patented genes they hold are worthless to farmers. 

Farmers pay a premium for seeds that produce glyphosate (i.e., Roundup) resistant crops, but now the weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup, too. The advantage of technology in plant varieties sits solely with patent holders. Farmers pay bigger bills for weed control and national yield trends remain flat. We pay more and get the same results.

The farm bill won’t change that…but somebody should.

Ranchers and farmers are leaving the beef business in droves as drought, plowed pastures, and corporate monopolies drive them away. Stronger rules governing markets — and enforcement by USDA — would have provided farmers with fairer prices. We almost saw that included in the old Farm Bill.

But Congress and the Administration seem blind to the possibilities of how fair markets could help small producers. Big meat packers who opposed these rules sure weren’t keeping their eyes closed. They made sure the rules (and those who would enforce them) left town. 

Small dairy farmers are less than broke. To them, reform is just a word on a piece of paper. They can see the problem in unfair dumping of foreign milk products and unbridled expansion by big corporate-cluster dairies. All Congress would have to do is ask. 

Now, with so many dairies gone — sold or out of business — these milk producers are out of sight and out of mind. 

Organic food standards are changing for the worse, turning out food that is more profitable but less of what consumers really want. Corporations are writing the rules so that they can slap on “organic” labels for uninformed consumers to feel good about — but still produce the cheap products with the same mass production techniques they use for other food.

The trend in organic food is to allow big food even more power to make the rules.

We still see more animal identification proposals coming out of Washington D.C. Most farmers and ranchers know it’s a bad deal for them. It would be expensive to tag every animal. But Big Pig, Big Chicken, and Big Beef don’t give it a second thought, because even as family farmers will have to tag, record and track each and every individual animal, big livestock can do it by the herd or by the barn full. 

Richard Oswald
Rural development funding helps communities with their water supplies. But rural development isn’t part of the House version of the Farm Bill.

USDA thinks this is important, maybe because they’re moving the animal disease laboratory from Plum Island near New York to the heart of livestock country in the middle of Kansas. If bad bugs escape, USDA needs a plan to track the disease. But their plan would shackle small farms with more intricate rules and regulations that would put more independent producers out of business.

The Farm Bill likely won’t address that either. Count on it.

It seems sometimes as if members of Congress are looking through the wrong end of their binoculars. All they can see is the biggest — the biggest company, the biggest lobbyist, the biggest stockholder. They have no vision of a galaxy of national food choice, just a handful of food conglomerates. 

If you don’t want to depend on cheap imports, non-organic “organic” food and who-knows-what additives, the real stars are tiny points of light called family farms. 

I appreciate all the debate and work in fashioning a safety net for farmers like me, because under the right conditions these days I can go broke just as fast as my dairy or beef-producing neighbors. 

But a lot of what I grow depends on a lot of what my neighbors grow if I am to have domestic markets for my stuff. Big companies doing business all over the world, however, only care about currency exchange rates and market-ready goods. They don’t care where it comes from. 

With a bigger safety net for more types of farms, we’d all be better off. 

Because fair markets and opportunity are what it takes to keep those stars in the sky. And with fair markets and opportunities, subsidies wouldn’t be so important.

Congress needs to start looking at domestic food production with an eye to the future…and soon. Otherwise, we could all disappear. 

Richard Oswald is a fifth generation farmer in northwest Missouri, the president of the Missouri Farmers Union and a regular Daily Yonder columnist.

 

x

News Briefs