You may already know a lot, or a little, about the U.S. Farm Bill, dear Reader, but this has been my year to try to understand this smorgasbord bill, passed every five to seven years (most recently in 2008) and what it really means for farms of all sizes, for sustainability, for the food we eat and for the American people. Turns out I picked a doozy of a year to try to observe the process as the 2012 Farm Bill, like so much else, has been held hostage by the deficit-reduction frenzy. There has been widespread concern that this far reaching legislation was being fast-tracked and negotiated in secret as part of the now-failed supercommittee process.
Even under normal circumstances the picture isn’t a whole lot prettier. “Typically, passage of the Farm Bill… involves a lengthy process of hearings, constituent meetings, and (sad but true) many a high-priced meal on the tab of some lobbyist or other—followed by detailed negotiations between the House and Senate Agriculture Committees,” Tom Laskaway, food and ag policy writer wrote in Grist last month.
As our nation prepares to commemorate that first Thanksgiving feast it’s not exactly clear where the 2012 Farm Bill is; it needs to be renewed by September 30, 2012. I am intent on continuing to follow the process as this is the legislation that, among other things, has the potential to set the tone and the funding for federal commitment to sustainable agriculture, for support and encouragement of young and future farmers, for land and resource conservation programs, and for redirecting subsidies away from the big ag commodities that seem to be producing more feed and fuel than actual nourishing food.
Just an example on that last point: Fruits, vegetables and nuts, those staples of healthy eating, are labeled “specialty crops” under the last farm bill while commodity crops, supported on the basis of how much is produced of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton, now get something like $25 billion a year in subsidies.
By way of background, writer Michael Pollan of Omnivore’s Dilemna fame has described the Farm Bill as a “resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which… sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system.” Says Pollan, it “isn’t a bill just for farmers. It really should be called a ‘food bill’ because it is the rules for the food system we all eat by, and those rules are really lousy right now. They need to be changed.” As Pollan has long pointed out there is much more incentive to produce corn syrup and soybean oil, “those building blocks of fast food,” than to grow and produce the balanced nutritious diet that would nourish and feed families and communities.
Now is the time to stay informed and reach out to your legislators here in the Hudson Valley. Both New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Chris Gibson (NY 20) serve on their respective Agriculture Committees. The combined interest in regional farming, locavore eating and growing concerns about Big Ag (including efforts by the Occupy Wall Street folks) has launched more grassroots interest in the 2012 Farm Bill than in past cycles, reports the online news source Grist, which is been following the 2012 bill with an excellent series. American Farmland Trust, too, has put out a very helpful primer.
So, while you gather with family and friends and prepare your holiday feast take a moment to remember where all that wonderful food is coming from and how truly essential sustainable agriculture is for our future. Happy Thanksgiving to all!