Government Farming

Reading about a couple of pieces of farm-related legislation put me in the mood to rant a bit.

In 2011 Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act.  Now the FDA is promulgating the regulations for enforcement of it.  The FDA estimates that the cost of compliance with the “Produce Safety Rule” it is proposing (which governs irrigation, soil amendments, wildlife management, and the like) will be $4,697 per year for “very small farms” (gross proceeds of $25,000 to 250,000 per year), $12,972 per year for a “small farm” ($250,001 to 500,000) and $30,566 per year for a large farm (over $500,000).  Almost all sustainable chemical-free farms (such as ours) are “very small” and at the bottom end of the “very small” range.  Assuming farm profit margins (for those farms fortunate enough to turn a profit) at about 10% of gross revenue, this additional expense would be destructive of most small farms obligated to comply with it.  Certainly we couldn’t afford nearly $5,000 in additional expense, for such things as hand-washing stations at the gardens, frequent well-testing, and whatever they will ultimately require to make sure possums and other critters don’t poop in the gardens. The industrial farms can easily absorb a little extra overhead. But this kind of thing just drives the small farms out of business.  At this point farms (like ours) which only sell in their own state or within a 275 mile radius of the farm are exempt. But some lobbyists are pushing for even more stringent rules and no small-farm exemptions.  The regulations haven’t yet been adopted (the comment period expires on November 13), and maybe good sense will prevail.  If not, the deck will be stacked even more strongly against the small sustainable farms in this country.

Then there is the so-called “Farm Bill.”  Originally enacted as an emergency measure during the Great Depression, the bill has been revised and extended every five years since then. The price tag on this year’s version is about $1 trillion (not a typo).  Eighty percent or so of the bill’s cost is for the SNAP program (food stamps) and other nutritional programs.  The rest (the “farm” part of the bill) is composed almost entirely of subsidies to industrial agriculture.  Combining the food stamps program with agricultural subsidy payments has historically assured passage of the bill, as those representing urban and rural constituencies could comfortably scratch each others’ backs.  The Senate passed a renewal of the bill earlier this year, with minor cuts to SNAP spending and some tweaking of the ag subsidies (now accomplished primarily with subsidized crop insurance). Earlier this summer, to circumvent a big fight over the size of the SNAP program (the annual cost of which has more than doubled since 2007), the House stripped it out of the farm bill, passing only the “farm” portion of the bill.  This has drawn howls of protest from both the industrial farm lobby and SNAP advocates, each recognizing that they’ll lose leverage if the two programs are voted on separately.  So as of now there is no Farm Bill on the table and the existing bill is scheduled to expire on September 30.  As that day approaches, prepare yourself to see alarming news stories about how the price of milk will soon skyrocket and various other ways the sky will begin to fall unless more slop is placed into Big Ag’s trough.

Along those lines, consider this post from the President of the Missouri Farmer’s Union. “We all need a farm bill,” he insists.  He describes those who oppose it as “a minority of malcontents” intent on “driving the bus over the cliff.”  “Without a farm bill,” he writes, “there might not be turkey at all, or beef or pork.”  Evidently he is of the opinion that American agriculture is now so completely dependent upon government subsidies that American farmers are incapable of producing food without them.  Rather than pricing their products at their true cost of production, American farms would simply stop producing food.  This is the kind of alarmist nonsense that dominates discussion of the bill, drowning out any reasonable, balanced consideration of the effects and sustainability of the subsidies.  Note also that his post includes a parade of horribles, supposedly prevented only by the Farm Bill (while saying next to nothing about the real reason industrial agriculture wants the bill–cash from Uncle Sam).  In the absence of a trillion dollar farm bill, we’ll have no meat inspection, no federal nutrition programs, no crop insurance, etc., he would have us believe.  This is, of course, baloney. There is no reason at all why these items, to the extent they are desirable, couldn’t be funded within agency appropriations. Crop insurance doesn’t need to be federally subsidized in order to exist. Federal meat inspection is not dependent in any way upon the existence of subsidy payments.  The SNAP program has almost nothing to do with farming and there is no reason (other than political arm-twisting) why it can’t be adopted independently of farm subsidies.

No doubt something very similar to the existing bill was pass before the deadline (or Congress will temporarily extend the existing bill, as it did last year), giving us five more years of corporate welfare and taxpayer-subsidized agricultural practices that are devastating to the environment and to our health.

Sigh.  I shouldn’t read the news.