It’s that time again, and coincidentally it is a presidential election year as well, which gives political parties a chance to define their role for the American farmer--once we find out who the American farmer is. Farm bill legislation comes to the floor every five years, and the current law is due to expire on Sept. 30.
The Farm Bill, however, is not only about farms. In the last five years cuts have been made to conservation programs, and due to the economic crisis resulting in job losses many Americans have had to enroll in the food stamp program. By the way, this is how the system is supposed to work for citizens who, through no fault of their own, find they need assistance.
The state of food in America and farm policy are inextricably linked through a complex system of legislative lobbyists, media interpretation, concerned citizens and policy makers, both experienced and those new to the give and take of Washington politics as usual. Commodity prices which can be based on spot or future prices have reached all-time highs, and 40 percent of the feed corn crop is now used to make biofuel.
Most countries of the world, including the United States government, are involved in food production to ensure production, pricing, quality, safety and a well developed agriculture. The Department of Agriculture is charged with supporting the creation of an adequate food supply to ensure that all citizens have access to basic nutrition. The Farm Bill is a government mechanism to ensure these tenants.
The U.S. Census identifies over two million farms, but 90 percent of the nation’s farm output comes from only 300,000 mostly large-scale, highly mechanized operations. Feeding 310 million Americans is just one part of the job assignment. The American farmer is also expected to counter the mounting trade deficit and feed the rest of the world (or so we are told) with a steady stream of exports. Now there’s the additional task of supplying crops for thirsty gas tanks, single-use packaging, and other products as a replacement for fossil fuels.
Who is receiving a farm subsidy?
Daniel Imhoff, an independent publisher on farming, writes in an article in Atlantic “residential farms don't generally get subsidies, and their households rely primarily on off-farm income -- and yet they represent two-thirds of the 2.2 million "farms" surveyed by USDA. The paychecks these people get from other jobs are also taken into account when USDA tallies "average farm income." This makes it appear as if: (a) the majority of American farmers do not receive subsidies; and (b) farm households have higher than average income.
Around 15 percent of all farms account for the nation’s agricultural output because they focus on commodity crops of grains, oilseeds, forage, pulses (soy), and special crops View the list here. Family farms are disappearing even though the American farm averages 441 acres; these are difficult find.
A small farm is maintained without expectation of being a primary source of income. Some are merely to provide some recreational land, and perhaps a few horses for the family's children. Others are managed as working farms for sideline income, or are even run at an ongoing loss as a lifestyle choice by people with the means to do so, functioning more like a country home than a business.
Commercial mega-farms or those earning over $250,000 per year control the farmlands and commodity crops.
So it's understandable that true family farmers feel vilified by attacks on farm subsidies. But they have not been good at making their own case to the public, or Congress. Rather, they have handed over their representation to agribusiness lobbies, who manipulate the image of family farmers to their advantage in order to advance the interests of commercial mega-farms.
Not surprisingly, those elite, commercial mega-farms -- those earning over $250,000 per year that control vast acreages -- haven't felt economically squeezed. They have a manufacturing model, with an emphasis on long-lasting commodity crops like corn, cotton, rice, wheat, soybeans, and other animal feed grains -- not fruits and vegetables that humans actually eat.
Human labor is expensive and replaced with gas-powered machinery, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides that deplete the land. Those supplies and equipment are expensive, but get economical when spread over a maximum number of acres or animals. These huge farms were responsible for 44 percent of commodity crop production and received 32 percent of commodity payments in 2003. "The concentration of farm payments is caused primarily by the concentration of land and production."
Why are small farms important?
The answer is sustainable agriculture that respects and replenishes the land with nutrients, instead of over tilling and sterilizing the top soil with chemicals to the point that it is no longer productive.
Small farms provide a rich wealth of benefits besides providing high quality foods and benefiting local communities.
Family famers consider themselves stewards of the land, unlike agribusiness operations that pollute communities with chemical pesticides, noxious fumes and excess manure. Small family farmers live on their farms and strive to preserve their environment for future generations. Their interests in preserving the land for their communities means they are more likely to use sustainable farming techniques to protect the natural resources and human health.
The existence of family farms also guarantees the preservation of green space within the community. Unfortunately, once a family farm is forced out of business, the farmland is often sold for development, and the quality land and soil for farming are lost.
Independent family farms also play a vital role in rural economies. In addition to providing jobs to local people, family farmers also help support small businesses by purchasing goods and services within their communities. Meanwhile, industrial agriculture operations employ as few workers as possible and typically purchase supplies, equipment, and building materials from outside the local community. Rural areas are then left with high rates of unemployment and very little opportunity for economic growth.
The Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA) is an advocate for independent farmers, ranchers, livestock owners, and homesteaders in this country, as well as the consumers who support family farmers. By protecting independent agriculture, we protect the safety, quality, and availability of our food supply.
Now that the Farm Bill has reached the House of Representatives there are some considerations for the small farmer. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) plans to introduce an amendment to help small-scale slaughterhouses through technical assistance, grants, and more. The lack of small-scale slaughterhouses in many areas of the country is a huge barrier to the ability of local farmers to raise livestock for market. If we want to increase access to locally raised meats, we need to help existing and new small-scale slaughterhouses to succeed.
Cottage Farm Industry
According to FARFA this letter was sent in July to the Angelina County & Cities Health District and is an example of the hurdles for small business cottage industry food production.
On June 25, a citation was issued to a home baker who had donated goods for a nonprofit fundraiser. While the citation was dropped later that day, in the course of discussions, Mr. Terry Free with your department reportedly made several statements about the cottage foods law that are not accurate, namely:
1) That baked goods under the cottage foods bill cannot include ingredients such as eggs and milk;
2) That advertising a cottage foods operation is not allowed; and
3) That delivery of cottage food items is not allowed.
None of these are correct, yet the individual was threatened additional enforcement actions. The letter was written to seek clarification of Angelina County’s position on the cottage foods provisions of the Texas Health and Safety Code.
Buy fresh and local
It’s important to know where your food comes from and how it’s grown. FoodRoutes was created to serve the small farm and local farmer’s markets.
The FoodRoutes Web site is a project of FoodRoutes Network (FRN). FRN is a national nonprofit organization that provides communications tools, technical support, networking and information resources to organizations nationwide that are working to rebuild local, community-based food systems. FRN is dedicated to reintroducing Americans to their food – the seeds it grows from, the farmers who produce it, and the routes that carry it from the fields to their tables. Our strategic communications programs include:
Slow Food develops projects, events and activities all around the world and at all levels - by convivia at the community level and by Slow Food offices at the regional and global level. It has adopted innovative approaches to defend food biodiversity
The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity builds the capacity of producers and protect food biodiversity and traditions. New economic models are being put into practice all around the world.
What a fair farm bill means for you
What a fair farm bill means for farmers
What a fair farm bill means for the environment
Support a Congress that defends the rights of small farmers, not agribusiness that cares not for sustainable farming practices or stewardship of the land. Save our topsoil for future generations to plant crops in nutritious soil that has not been polluted with chemicals and overtilled until it turns to dust.
If you like to write about U.S. politics and Campaign 2012, enter "The American Pundit" competition. Allvoices is awarding four $250 prizes each month between now and November. These monthly winners earn eligibility for the $5,000 grand prize, to be awarded after the November election.