Mowed down

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 15, 2007

Grassley’s prediction may not come true, but his analysis of the forces at work wasn’t far off. At the end of July, the House passed its version of the Farm Bill, which covers topics as diverse as farming, food stamps, and renewable energy. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who had in mind the interests of vulnerable freshman legislators from farm states — touted the bill as reform; but urban Democrats, thrifty Republicans, progressive farm-policy wonks, and newspaper editorial boards across the country were disappointed. Consider this evaluation, from the Bangor Daily News: “[A]s generous as the bill is, it still doesn’t fully reform the system by which it hands out subsidies...The Senate...has plenty of work to do.” Or this slightly more evocative appraisal by USA Today: “The experience in the House shows just how hard it is to undo government subsidies protected by potent lobbies. But with corn as high as an elephant’s eye, and prices climbing clear up to the sky, it’s a beautiful day to start chopping away.”

Steps toward reform
So why did Maine representatives Tom Allen and Michael Michaud vote for it? Well, believe it or not, this bill does make progress. Allen’s spokesman Mark Sullivan calls it a “vast improvement” on previous farming legislation, noting the increase in specifically designated money supporting farmers who grow fruits and vegetables ($1.8 billion nationally) and conservation ($4.3 billion nationally), two of the funding pools that benefit Maine farmers most.

The state’s Farm Services Agency, a branch of the Department of Agriculture, administers these programs locally, distributing money for research, pest management, and marketing to those who qualify. State director Dave Lavway notes that “we do have a real vested interest in the conservation title,” which provides various incentives for farmers to preserve farmland, and improve water, soil, and air quality.

Take Corinna farmer Roger Whitney: the custom corn-silage farmer depends on federal money to help him make sure the water that runs off from his operation doesn’t include chemicals that contaminate rivers or other bodies of water. “When the incentives aren’t there,” he says, “I would have to weigh my expenses” and his conservation budget would certainly shrink.

The House-passed bill also provides additional research and certification funding for organic farming, says Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. And Donald Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, is pleased with the research money included for potato breeding and pest-management research.

But a larger-scale analysis suggests that “the House really missed an opportunity in the sense of looking at this Farm Bill as a chance to break with past traditions,” Libby says.

Commodity subsidies are still “heavily skewed” toward the farms that produce things like feed corn (used to make corn syrup or feed livestock), or soy (the base of many oils, and also used as a feed), Libby points out. And although the subsidy eligibility income cap has been lowered — the House version stipulates that no farmer with an adjusted gross income of more than $1 million can receive crop subsidies — down from an outrageous $2 million, it’s still a far cry from the $200,000 cap proposed by the Bush Administration (and when you can see where Bush is coming from, you know something’s amiss).

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