Mowed down

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 15, 2007

At one point during the House Farm Bill debate, there was another option on the table. Representatives Ron Kind (D-Wisconsin) and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) put forth an amendment that would have capped subsidy eligibility at $250,000 of income, and diverted even more funding for fruits and veggies, organics, and conservation. To their credit, Allen and Michaud both voted for the Kind-Flake amendment, but it failed miserably with 117 supporters and 309 opponents.

“This was an effort to change farm policy,” Allen says of the overall process. “And I’d say we got as much reform as we could squeeze out of the moment.”

To appease lawmakers such as ours from Maine, there was some last minute “horse trading” that happened on the House floor, says Sandra Schubert of the Environmental Working Group. With representatives like Allen and Michaud initially supporting alternative bills, certain regional-fairness provisions gained enough momentum to ensure that they’d be included in the final version of the House bill. If they weren’t, supporters of that bill risked losing crucial votes. After all, it was Allen who symbolically voted against the final version of the 2002 Farm Bill, saying that he “wanted to register my objection to the size of the bill and what I regard as excessive subsidies to farmers in the South and Midwest. But it’s hard because there is money for Maine.”

“What we saw up until five minutes to midnight was them still trying to cut deals,” Schubert says. “We think the specialty crop growers could have held out for a little more. The [Agriculture] committee basically did what they needed to do for the commodity districts and a little bit for anyone else” — in other words, committee members sweetened the deal to make sure they got what they wanted.

Too much, too soon?
In terms of balance, it’s worth noting that 10 states get more than 60 percent of crop subsidy money — and that the 46 House districts (less than 11 percent of the total 435) represented on the House Agricultural Committee scoop up more than 42 percent of the total crop funding.

Some of that makes sense, at least in terms of the way America’s food system runs. The history of the Farm Bill — “kitchen-sink” legislation if there ever was such a thing — is onerous, even by Congressional standards. Subsidies originally put into place to rescue farmers from the Depression era’s plummeting prices are still distributed even in the best of times — which could include today, what with the skyrocketing demand for corn to make ethanol (a popular, corn-based source of renewable energy). In some situations, these payments can help American farmers — a dying breed, literally — stay afloat, making their rates of return worthwhile. But just as often, they help to flood foreign markets with cheap crops, make junk food less expensive than healthy produce, and alter the natural diets of livestock. (One comprehensible, if liberally skewed explanation of Farm Bill fundamentals can be found at http://www.grist.org/comments/food/2007/01/23/farm_bill/.)

Still, with the markets for organic and locally-grown foods growing exponentially — especially in the Northeast and on the West Coast — and the number of farms in Maine and the country dwindling fast, it makes sense to strive for more balance.

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