Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Vote With Your Appetite

by The Green Guide
September 14, 2007

Twenty-two years strong, Willie Nelson's annual Farm Aid concerts are still the family farmer's greatest ally, regularly drawing new eyes to a shrinking, aging, David-like industry that's constantly fighting the Goliath of politically influential agribusinesses that not only feed a majority of the country's populace but also eat up a huge chunk of federal farm subsidies. But while we wandered around Randall's Island, coated in a thin layer of locally grown New York City dust drinking Peak Organic Beer and eating humanely raised, antibiotic- and hormone-free pork from Patchwork Family Farms, it was hard to ignore a major issue behind this year's Farm Aid, the massive 2007 Farm Bill just passed by the House of Representatives (subscription required) in all its controversial glory.

In a press conference before the event, Farm Aid board member John Mellencamp uttered a few choice words for our current lobbyist-friendly agriculture system. "Everywhere we look," he said, "the small guy is getting screwed." Mellencamp may have overlooked the provision in the House version of the bill that ended subsidies for farmers that earn over $1 million per year, but his sympathies are well founded. If the bill were friendlier to small farmers, not only would they benefit but we could solve quite a few of the problems in our current food supply. More small farms would promote the sort of de-centralized food system that people have been asking for ever since E.coli-tainted spinach from a single California farm appeared on store shelves nationwide a year ago this week. Despite promises from the FDA that the agency would act quickly to resolve problems, all legislative attempts to require regular food inspections have failed to pass at either the state or federal levels. Industry leaders fearing a drop in consumer confidence have attempted self-regulation, but given the recent recalls in lead-painted toys, we're all aware that industry self-regulation may be more pipe dream than viable alternative. Why buy from a huge faceless farm when your local farmer can offer you reassurances that his crops are untainted?

Nevertheless, what the bill does offer for the first time is money for organics, whether from small or industrial-sized farms. "We're barely a slice of the farm bill pie," says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), referring to organic farming. "But if you know the Byzantine hallways that the Farm Bill lives, you'd be encouraged," he adds, noting that the mere existence of Congressional committees with the term "organic" in their titles "is revolutionary." As it currently stands, the bill has allocated $5 million in mandatory funding for organic agriculture research, with an additional $25 million available for discretionary funds (OFRF had originally pushed for $25 million in mandatory funds).

What's more, the bill allocates $5 million per year for the next three years, and $10 million for 2011 an 2012, for farmers' markets, roadside stands, CSAs and other farmer-to-consumer marketing opportunities. If used for farmers' markets, at least 10 percent of that has to go to electronic-bank-transfer equipment to provide food-stamp users access to farm-fresh food.

As with any piece of legislation, the Farm Bill draws about as much criticism as it does support, and despite Farm Aid's best efforts, it doesn't look like politicians are going to do much in the immediate future to anger powerful agriculture lobbyists. But we average Americans can still vote with our dollars. The one law that politics can't change is that of simple economics. Businesses supply what people want, and if we demand local food, that's what we'll get. You just have to be as active with businessmen as you would with politicians. One way to do that is to write a letter to your local grocery store manager and ask them to stock food from family farms. If your local grocer complains too loudly about lack of access to local farms, here's a few reassuring statistic: The number of small family farms (those making less than $10,000 in annual sales) has increased by 121,000 over the past ten years. There's bound to be one nearby.

At the same time, don't let up on your grassroots political efforts. Fortunately, the internet is making it easier to do. Voice whatever opinions you might have about the Farm Bill to your senator, especially if your senator is on the Senate Agriculture Committee, before the bill goes before the Senate in October. And start making plans to attend next year's Farm Aid.

© The Green Guide 2007

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