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A New Vision for the 2012 Farm Bill?

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House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN), who last year called those who spend money on organic produce "dumb," may become the unlikely champion of a Farm Bill in 2012 that could create opportunities for more sustainable farmers.

This week, the House Agriculture Committee held the first hearing on the 2012 Farm Bill, the main piece of legislation that every five years establishes our nations food and agriculture policy. The Farm Bill affects farm payments, supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP, formally called food stamps), international trade, conservation programs, the opportunities in rural communities, agriculture research, food safety, and more. Currently 70% of farm payments go to the wealthiest 10% of producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. These kinds of oversights are the result of a Farm Bill that has been largely cobbled together over time.

But it seems the House Agriculture Committee is gearing up for a more serious overhaul this time around. Peterson said that he called the Farm Bill hearing Wednesday in order to get a head start on the process, saying "I think it will be very difficult to pass a status-quo farm bill in 2012." As the Environmental Working Group pointed out, Peterson has said that all options will be "on the table" for the planning of this Farm Bill.

Due to budgetary constraints affecting all areas of government, Peterson and his committee will specifically be re-considering the efficiency of direct payments, disaster relief programs, crop insurance and conservation programs. He said in an interview following the hearing that subsidy programs could phase out over the next 20 years as crop insurance programs strengthen and become less focused on commodities. "Is it right to be doing [crop insurance] by commodity, or should we be doing this with whole-farm type of situation with crop insurance and revenue?" said Peterson. He went on to say that the idea of crop insurance is easier to sell to urban voters than the conventional subsidy programs. If the new Farm Bill includes this change, it could spur farmers to diversify their crops, spreading out their risk, thereby creating new opportunities for local food systems.

Peterson has also expressed concern that direct payments could be affecting land values and rents, asking "is that making it more difficult for young farmers to get started?"

This openness could pave the way for a broader conversation about who the Farm Bill serves, what it is suppose to do, and what the long term goals of such legislation should be.

One of the ideas that the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) hopes will be a part of the discussion is an expanded "green payments" program, which would reward farmers for environmental stewardship instead of placing the incentives on overproduction. "In light of the increasing questions coming from within parts of the Agriculture Committee leadership about the commodity programs--especially direct payments," said Aimee Witteman, Executive Director of NSAC, "We think 2012 represents an important opportunity to make [the Conservation Stewardship Program] an even bolder program that shifts financial resources away from environmentally-destructive practices."

Writer and farmer Wendell Berry, plant biologist Wes Jackson and other advocates of sustainable agriculture have called for a 50-year Farm Bill in order to deal with environmental issues like soil degradation, water pollution and climate change, all exacerbated by the way we produce food now in the US.

"While we need to look at short term problems in agriculture, we also need to look further ahead than 5 years," said Jim Goodman, organic dairy farmer and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy fellow. "Issues of water quality, soil erosion, increasing local food production, revitalizing rural communities and decreasing agriculture's dependence on fossil fuel should be addressed with a long range focus."

Daniel Imhoff, author of the book, Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, said long-term thinking on the Farm Bill should focus on "Getting Perennial by the Next Centennial." The idea would be to "[use] the 5-year farm bills to push land use from monocropping of annual feed grains to broad acreages of deep rooted perennial plants that sequester carbon, filter water, protect the soil, provide habitat, and can support fewer numbers of healthier grazing animals."

Imhoff also said that this Farm Bill should take a stance of "No Subsidization without Social Obligation." "We must put an end to commodity subsidy programs that simply encourage overproduction and insurance of cheap ingredients for industrial foods," he said. "What we subsidize should contribute to an all around healthier food system"

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and frequent speaker on food issues, agrees. "[The] whole bill needs to be viewed through the lens of improving public health and, perhaps specifically, supporting the first lady's Let's Move initiative," he said. "In the same way bills in congress get "scored" by [the Congressional Budget Office] for their impact on the deficit, the [Farm Bill] should be scored on its various provisions likelihood of improving or damaging public health."

Another major issue is funding the research needed to turn the tables on climate change and the other environmental byproducts of this food system. "The federal food and agriculture research budget and agenda need to be more robust and diversified," said Michael Dimock, President of the organization Roots of Change. He continued, saying that we need "agro-ecological and organic research that will allow us to scale up the work of Joel Salatin, Wes Jackson, and others that are showing farmers how to work with diversity [and] to break out of the industrial mindset that seeks to eliminate diversity."

It is still too early to tell how this dialog about the 2012 Farm Bill will turn out, but Aimee Witteman at NSAC has some advice. "Get to know your legislators and identify champions for your issues early on," she said. "Also, don't underestimate the freshmen. We had several first-year Congress members step up and champion issues like beginning farmers and organic agriculture, folks such as Rep Tim Walz (D-MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)," who was a Representative when the 2008 Farm Bill was written.

Because the 2008 Farm Bill mostly followed the status quo of the bills that had come before it, despite an active base supporting change, I asked Witteman what should be different about the approach to reform this time.

"It's important for the 'good food movement' to not demonize farmers in their media and advocacy work," she said. "I think there was a tendency in the media last time for the "change" story to be written as a power play between the urban elite and the big conventional farmers supposedly living high on the hog. Not only is that depiction inaccurate, it does nothing to forge a strategic relationship between urban and rural stakeholders, or win the hearts and minds of members of the Agriculture Committee. The biggest winners from our existing farm policies are not farmers or eaters, but agribusiness companies that benefit from cheap feed inputs and unenforced antitrust regulations."

The House Agriculture Committee will hold four field meetings in the coming weeks in Des Moines, Iowa; Boise, Idaho; Fresno, California; and Cheyenne, Wyoming that are open to the public, giving individuals a chance to weigh in on the direction of the legislation.

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