Gearing Up for Farm Bill 2012

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Collin Peterson / Photo: Eric Roper

Collin Peterson / Photo: Eric Roper

Led by its chairman, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN7), the House Agriculture Committee has begun work on the Farm Bill for 2012.

It should be obvious by now that when money gets tight, people get threatened and mean. With the budget deficit the Obama Administration inherited from an intentionally spendthrift Bush43 administration, which deficit the Obamas proceeded to grow mightily (I’m not saying they were wrong; the results are starting to seem beneficial, but I can’t be entirely objective about the deficit. I’m going to be really old and really vulnerable when the fit hits the shan a few years from now.) we can expect to see unprecedented jostling and shoving at the pig trough that is the USDA’s budget, starting now and continuing until the bill is finally signed.

The Farm Bill is, after all, about money: who gets it and flourishes, who loses out and starves. Will we see more of the “get big or get out” attitude that characterized the $289 billion Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 , also known as the 2008 Farm Bill? Or will Peterson’s opening remarks bear fruit to nourish small and medium-sized farm operations at the expense <gasp!> of the nation’s agricultural giants?

Peterson, who describes himself as Blue Dog Democrat and explains why he voted against health care reform, kicked things off with an April 21 hearing at which the only witness was Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The House committee chairman then took his show on the road, with hearings at the end of April in Des Moines, Iowa; Boise, Idaho; Fresno, California; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

If you’d like to weigh in on what lawmakers should be thinking about changing – or anything else relevant to the bill – you can email your thoughts to “agriculture at mail.house.gov” (you know what to do to make that address work) between now and June 2.

As hearing transcripts become available, they will be posted on the House ag committee’s website. As I write this (May 11, 8 p.m. Eastern) nothing is there.

Peterson seems eager to take a fresh look at farm subsidies, as well he might. Enacted during the Great Depression to keep small farmers in business, the subsidies have, in classic capitalist fashion, migrated to the rich.

We have subsidies to thank for corn ethanol, which costs more energy to produce than it gives back. We have subsidies to thank for high fructose corn syrup, which makes soda pop addicts out of children in school, and which we can thank in large measure for the wave of childhood obesity and diabetes sweeping the country. We have subsidies to thank for the fact that fast-food hamburgers are so cheap that poor people rely on them for nourishment. I could go on. Some other day, I will.

Writing on Agriculture Online, Dan Looker, business editor for Successful Farming magazine, gives us a look at Peterson’s attitude.

Over the past winter and spring, Peterson has made it clear that he expects finding the financial resources for farm programs to be tougher by 2012, as Congress wrestles with ways to cut a ballooning federal deficit.

On Friday, Peterson made it clear that he’s doing this, not because he has any hidden reform agenda, but “to get people thinking ahead of time on where we should be going in the future.”

And, he said, “My interest is in providing a safety net for the average commercial production farm out there.”

“I’ve told people we should put everything on the table. It’s nothing more than that,” he added.

Peterson said that he wants the next farm bill to continue to offer a safety net for the commercial farms that produce most of the nation’s food and that “I’m not coming from any one point of view.” “

What I don’t know is this: are “the average commercial production farm” and “the commercial farms that produce most of the nation’s food” the same farms? My doublespeak alarm went off when I got to this part of Looker’s report. I’m keeping my mind open – and alert.

The Environmental Working Group has an interactive map showing who has got how much in farm subsidies since 1995. I’m not exactly sure where they’re coming from, but I like some of what they have to say.

Thanks to EWG’s Farm Subsidy Database, it has become painfully clear that our farm programs benefit a very small swath of the agriculture sector. The vast majority of farm payments (70 percent) go to a narrow slice of the wealthiest top 10 percent of producers of the five major commodity crops – corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. Meanwhile, smaller farms — the ones that most people typically think of as “family farms” — and growers of fruits, vegetables and livestock get very little support, or nothing at all.

Commenting on that “narrow slice of the wealthiest,” EWG says that

USDA subsidies in the United States totaled $245.2 billion from 1995-2009.

From 1995 to 2009, the top 10 percent of recipients were paid 74 percent of all USDA subsidies.

Doesn’t that just warm your heart?

It’s going to be fun to see if Peterson is serious about wanting to change this redistribution of the nation’s wealth, and, if he is, who’s lined up to thwart him, and who’s standing behind those who are lined up. I’ll bet you and I together could come up with the cast of characters. But let’s keep our minds open, and watch. I’ll stay on top of this, at least I intend to. But I’m mindful of the saying, “If you want to make god laugh, just tell her your plans.”

I’d love to see comments or get email (TB40//at//mwilliamson.com) with questions, comments, and tips I should follow up on. Bring ‘em on, and I’ll do my best.

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One Response to “Gearing Up for Farm Bill 2012”

  1. The narrowing of the subsidies to big agribusiness is a major concern. I know that the last farm bill reduced the percentage of those subsidies but it isn’t the percentage of the overall bill that ever bothered me it was the much smaller proportionate share for small farms — the ones you talk about that provide us the locally available fresh foods.  I would like to see more funds available for young organics farms. Encourage people who have an interest in growing specialty crops as well as healthier  regular everyday produce, dairy and meat products and we will all be better off.

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