Mowed down

The federal Farm Bill leaves Mainers in the dust
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 15, 2007
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"It affects urbanites, too." By Deirdre Fulton.
An extremely expensive piece of legislation — one that dictates how much food costs, what kinds of food we’re more likely to eat, and the viability of farming in America — is currently winding its way through Congress. The Farm Bill, which carries a price tag of more than $280-billion to be spent over the next five years, piles hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies onto Midwestern and southeastern farmers, leaving Maine and other Northeastern states with the dregs at the bottom of the pork barrel — Maine ranks 43rd in the commodity-crop category of Farm Bill funding; all six New England states are in the bottom 10.

Most farming subsidies — by far — go to states that grow the “big five” commodity crops — corn, cotton, rice, wheat, and soy — and to Congressional districts served by members of the House Agricultural Committee, which, not coincidentally, is made up primarily of farm-state representatives. (Neither Maine representative serves on that committee now, though John Baldacci did before he left the House to run for governor.) Maine gets such a small chunk of federal Farm Bill money for its crops — about $7 million — that its share registers as zero percent of all state allocations on the Web site of eco-watchdog Environmental Working Group. (We do get more money than that: our share of the Farm Bill’s allocations for food stamps, school nutrition, and food-bank aid get the total to just shy of a billion dollars over five years, or 0.35 percent of total Farm Bill spending.)

This state’s farmers don’t grow much of the big five commodities; Maine’s most lucrative agricultural earners are potatoes, blueberries, and dairy. Many of Maine’s 7196 farms grow food you’d see at a Saturday farmer’s market in Deering Oaks Park. All these types of small-to-medium, often family-run farms benefit from other money sources in the Farm Bill — such as cash set aside for “specialty crops” (basically anything other than the big five), organic farming, or for environmental stewardship and conservation. Compared with the rivers of money that go to the heavily-subsidized crops, these funds are a trickle. They don’t have to be.

When the Farm Bill came up for its every-five-year reauthorization in 2007, some politicians and policy makers saw an opportunity for much-needed reform of a system that funds big agribusiness farms at the drastic expense of smaller operations in other regions. It’s difficult for individual legislators to make an impact on sweeping legislation that stirs the regional-politics pot while it also addresses bipartisan, nationwide concerns like hunger and healthy foods in schools. But many people thought that 2002’s Farm Bill fiasco would make reform unavoidable this time around. In May 2002, Iowa Republican Charles Grassley was so disappointed with the amount of federal subsidies stuffed into that year’s bill that he told the Portland Press Herald: “This will make it so hard to win urban support in the future that this bill may very well be the last farm bill to grind its way through Washington.”

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