Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ag on the chopping block?

The farm bill, a huge and complicated plan for the federal government's agriculture and hunger policy for five years, is set to expire on September 30. In case you missed it, that is a scant six weeks before what promises to be a hotly contested presidential election and fierce battles for control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. In this supercharged partisan environment, what are the chances for a good farm bill emerging from Congress? What are the implications for farming areas like the Shenandoah Valley?

Both parties are promising austerity and with the House Republicans wielding a particularly sharp budget axe, it is likely that we'll see most programs under Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food curtailed or eliminated.  This USDA initiative promotes sustainable local agriculture by assisting in the creation of farmers' markets and urban farms, extending the growing season for high-value crops through the tunnel program, and partnering with schools and government agencies, and other groups. Interested in learning more - KYF Compass will direct you to programs in your home town.

At the same time Big Ag is pushing for changes in support for "big commodity" crops like cotton, soybeans, and corn. Currently these (mostly large and/or corporate) farmers receive direct payments (totaling about $5 billion per year) based on acreage planted. In return they promised conservation strategies to reduce erosion and wetlands draining. The GOP is pushing a revenue insurance plan that "promises" to save $1.5 billion per year but has no conservation provisions. The insurance will likely guarantee fairly high prices and if the market dips taxpayers would be on the hook - the $1.5 billion "savings" could go poof. Even worse, the big players and their allies like Syngenta will be encouraged to use more pesticides and to use fewer conservation practices.

In the Shenandoah Valley where many farms harken back to the days of "family farms," a new farm bill may have negative impacts on developing farmers markets (and those fledgling small farms that often sell produce at such markets), the Shenandoah Valley Beef Initiative, and other activities. And since many of the farmers don't raise those big commodity crops, they may be left out in the cold by the "insurance." As the debate continues one wonders where Bob Goodlatte, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, will stand. Will he talk (and listen) to all segments of the farm community in the 6th District or will his vote be influenced by big donors and worn Republican talking points? If his past behavior is any indication, Bobblehead Bob will dance to the tune of of those who pay his piper.

For more about the farm bill check out "The Worst Farm Bill Ever?" and The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. If you think it is time to replace this entrenched incumbent, check out this guy.

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