Farm Bill Up for Vote (and Veto)

Here we are nearly halfway through 2008, and the 2007 farm bill is slowly but surely making its way through House and Senate disagreements on its way to the chamber floors for vote this week or next. The final compromise, USDA chair Ed Schafer bluntly informs us, will be vetoed by President Bush.

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If farm legislation doesn’t directly affect many of us rural and semi-rural homesteaders, it’s a sure bet that it will affect our neighbors who do farm on a commercial scale. Thus it’s something we should be paying attention to. According to lawmakers nearly 3/4 of the spending in this bill over the next decade will be for feeding the needy. Another 16% goes toward commodities, crop insurance and disaster relief. Increasing nutrition spending (feeding the hungry) 8+% over the previous farm bill is reasonable given the worsening food crisis both in America and world wide.

This farm bill addresses biofuels diversion of food crops (like soy and corn) by providing more than a billion dollars to expand alternate use of biomass (like switchgrass and algae) and crop by-products (cornstalks, wheat straw, etc.) rather than diverting the grain itself. It also tightens payment limits, eliminating the “three-entity rule” that the previous bill contained as justification to funneling most ag payments to huge agribusiness concerns rather than smaller farm cooperatives or family farms. It limits subsidies to anyone making more than $500,000 in non-farm adjusted gross income [AGI] per year, and entirely ending direct payments to anyone with an AGI of more than $750,000 from any source. This will effectively put Big Agribusiness in the business of actually doing business instead of simply sucking up free corporate welfare as smaller family farms disappear.

New homesteaders usually aim to grow an increasing amount of their own food, as this is part of the whole homesteading impetus in the modern world. Those who have been at it for awhile – and have managed to secure ~10 or more acres for their homestead – are increasingly producing food for local markets and even joining the CSA movement by allowing individuals and families to “buy-in” to the season’s crops. The nation’s farm bill policies (the 2002 bill expires on Friday, May 16th) usually don’t affect what homesteads of 50 acres or less produce, and nobody from the government tries to tell them what they can or can’t grow. And as long as production remains tied to the local/regional market the government isn’t likely to interfere.

So why, one might reasonably ask, has President Bush promised to veto the legislation? First, he’d wanted a $200,000 AGI cap on ALL farm subsidies, essentially getting the government fairly well out of the business of subsidizing agriculture altogether. The politicians claim their $750,000 figure is more realistic as a way of weaning farmers off support payments. Which under the present soon-to-expire bill allows an AGI of $2.5 million. Surely then the higher cap is reasonable as a step-down without throwing US agriculture into total turmoil just when food is becoming a precious commodity.

And while the amount of money American taxpayers must provide to farmers in order to have a safe and ample supply of food is certainly too much in real terms under the 2002 bill, that’s not the most controversial aspect of the 2007 bill. That would be the “commodity title” – the program through which the government tries to smooth out the financial uncertainty of farming itself. Bush wants those out altogether because they’re a sticking point in global trade deals (and, presumably, because we don’t have any money left from his oil wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). These payments usually go to the biggest farming concerns, so serious economic recession should be a factor in their continuance.

However – and most important to rural homesteaders producing or planning to produce within the next few years food for local/regional markets – this bill contains $5 million in annual mandatory funding for “Community Food Projects [CFP]” over the next 10 years. The bill also allows public school to favor local farms in bids for school food supplies, and this can significantly improve both local markets as well as school nutrition in general. It eliminates a major barrier for schools and will make Farm to School programs much easier to establish county-wide or even regionally. This will help producing homesteaders significantly.

While schools are still limited to spending a mere 70¢ to $1.00 per day per student for food, communities could get creative with other subsidies and program funding that would pay local farmers a decent price for their produce (including meat, dairy and chicken/eggs). The Conservation Title in this bill will tend to reward small farmers and producing homesteaders for their land and water conservation efforts too, and since we’re doing it anyway it’s nice to think that we could enjoy a small stipend to maintain the practice.

There are significant boosts in funding for organic agriculture, including a quintupling of payments to cover the heavy price of organic certification, and a seven-fold increase in funding for organic research and extension. It’s not a lot (and nowhere near the cash devoted to industrial-scale agribusiness), but it’s something. Something is always better than nothing, particularly since most of us homesteaders are growing food anyway.

I’ve been encouraging homesteaders to network with their neighbors and communities in a number of ways, and food production, distribution, nutrition programs in schools and for the needy in our communities are important aspects of local governance and planning homesteaders can contribute much to. We don’t HAVE to be paid by the government to love where we live and do what we do, but if our areas can manage to lasso some help from the big guys then we should be attempting to get all we can. Farm and rural policies are important even though we are striving for independence. So keeping up with what affects farmers in our areas is very important.

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