Letter from Langdon: The No-Food Farm Bill

Pulling the nutrition program from the farm bill shows that Republicans in the House of Representatives don't understand the basic connection between farming and food.

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Most farmers don’t understand it.

Average people just don’t get it.

So I’ll sum up the farm bill: It’s supposed to solve more problems than it creates.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has problems, too. Last I heard there were 216 of them. That’s the number Republican congressmen and women who stripped food from the farm bill.

The farm bill is ordinarily a food and USDA funding bill. The total funding, $500 billion, was roughly the five-year projected cost of all the things USDA does. About three-fourths of that would have bought food for kids, elderly Americans and the poor.

Not anymore.

Budgeting is a cold business. People who display budget numbers have the option of heating up debate simply in the way numbers are shown. For instance it costs about $600 billion per year to run the U.S. military. So in one year, that’s more than the cost of food aid, crop insurance, rural development and safety inspection spread over five years.

I think that’s why the Defense Department shows its budget a year at a time.

It’s a problem. But while a lot of people don’t like government give-aways, the real problem for USDA may be this:

Congress doesn’t see food as an important issue for people because the average U.S. Representative in the majority makes about $174000 a year. 

They eat pretty good.

On the other hand, to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) a family of three can’t earn more than about $28,000 a year

Now $28,000 sounds like a lot of money, but it takes a lot to eat these days. Take, for example, going out for a burger platter at the local slow-food restaurant. Here at Langdon that costs two of us close to $25 plus tip. That’s a budget buster. Fast food is a little cheaper, but a meal for a couple of growing boys is still close to 20 bucks.

Groceries and home cooking are cheaper still, especially the most important meal of the day. Two eggs with toast, butter and OJ for breakfast cost under a dollar.

Still I spend maybe $300 week on food for two. USDA says we could do it a lot cheaper, because by their standards my food costs are twice what they should be. 

Food stamps give bottom-line nutrition to the average hungry American for less than $5 a day –about $1,800 a year. That’s little more than one-10th what I spend on food for my family of two, and the part of the farm bill the U.S. House of Representatives wouldn’t even consider.

What’s all the fuss? Food is cheap in America, right?

On the other hand, it costs a fortune to be a farmer.

Being a farmer means paying bills 10 times greater than the money I net to buy food — and high-priced, imported, Chinese-made consumer goods from Wal-Mart.

Crop insurance is a biggie, because without government subsidies for crop insurance, my total insurance premiums would equal almost every penny I net. One reason crop insurance costs so much is because the crop insurance industry was privatized — taken out of USDA’s hands — almost 20 years ago. Now some USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) county offices have been closed, and they’re all operating under a hiring freeze. But the crop insurance industry is doing great because that subsidy, the one I supposedly get for crop insurance, goes directly to them.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the way I insure my crop. After all the floods, droughts and market collapses I’ve been through lately, it’s probably kept me on the farm. But without government assistance, I’d have to choose between weather risk and paying bills no one could afford.

Some people think that’s wasteful.

The other things I buy are derived from petroleum, stuff like diesel fuel, fertilizer and pesticides. Everyone knows crude oil is high.

I also buy patented seeds. Few people realize the cost of seed now that patent holding-corporations are setting the price. This year I paid a new record high for seed corn, but the price of I get selling the corn I grow with that seed is down close to 25%.

Congress used to hold their collective nose and vote for compromise. A small percentage now believes in no compromise at all. That’s the way it was when ultra-conservatives led by Representative Eric Cantor offered last-minute amendments to the Agriculture Reform Food and Jobs Act of 2013 after their own leadership had carefully brokered a deal that would have let the food and farm bill pass. That pretty much killed the version of the bill the House voted on in June.

So last week we wound up with a different farm bill in the House – a bill completely devoid of food.

A few years ago some city folks bought an acreage nearby. I was talking to one of them, a lady from back East who told me her plans for the property. Tops on her list was a building a new pond on top of the hill where she could see it from her kitchen window. She explained the landscaping and how beautiful it would be with fish and trees and ducks, but one thing bothered her.

“Where does the water come from to fill it?” she asked

Ponds collect water from runoff. I explained to her that everything runs downhill. That’s why ponds are normally in valleys.

It works the same way in Washington. These days, politicians want their pond at the top of the hill. All they believe in are corporate profits and campaign contributions.

They may even think water runs uphill.

That’s why Congress should spend more time in the valley looking for food.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

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