Every five years, through legislative action, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act, more commonly referred to as the Farm Bill, expires. This isn’t a bad thing as it opens up opportunity for our elected lawmakers to review the policies and programs offered in the act and suggest or make changes as they see fit. The current incarnation of this legislation, The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 will expire in 2012, and The United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry are right now deciding what the 2012 version of the bill will like.
The public now has until November 1, 2011, to tell the House and Senate how we feel about their proposed $23 billion in cuts which will affect most of the programs now supported by the Farm Bill including some its most vital programs, and rolling back years of progress made by previous incarnations of the bill, mostly programs supporting conservation and organic food practices, as well as beginning farmers and support for local food systems.
Traditionally, the Farm Bill provides the framework for the majority of federal programs supporting agriculture including farmers, producers, and consumers. The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) sums up the programs typically supported by the Farm Bill quite nicely:
Its 15 titles include administrative and funding authorities for programs that cover income and commodity price support, farm credit, and risk management; conservation though land retirement, stewardship of land and water resources, and farmland protection; food assistance and agricultural development efforts abroad and promotion of international access to American farm products; food stamps, domestic food distribution, and nutrition initiatives; rural community and economic development initiatives, including regional development, rural energy efficiency, water and waste facilities, and access to broadband technology; research on critical areas of the agricultural and food sector; accessibility and sustainability of forests; encouraging production and use of agricultural and rural renewable energy sources; and initiatives for attracting and retaining beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
Some of these programs can be rather polarizing (farm and crop subsidies, food stamps) when it comes to politics in the United States, but for the majority, the Farm Bill is an important piece of legislation which is integral in the maintenance of the American Agricultural system. The ERS even estimates that about 1 in 5 Americans will participate in these programs during a given year.
The 2008 version also added some great new programs which were great strides in a better more sustainable way to agribusiness in America, including: support for beginning farmers ensuring the next generation of American farmers and ranchers; assistance programs to farmers switching to organic practices, a lengthy and expensive process which many farmers cannot achieve due to financial restrictions; increased funding for organic research as well as organic conservation techniques. It also provides for training and practices among conventional farmers for better food safety, conceivably cutting back on the number of salmonella infected produce which finds its way into our grocery stores.
In 2008 the farmers market and food distribution programs also received greater funding through the bill, helping to fuel the recent explosion of farmers markets operating in this country, which has nearly doubled since 2006 and 2008 and grown by %17 between 2010 and 2011. All of which can have enormous economic and health impacts on the communities which they help to support. You can read a (long) report from agricultural economist Jeffery O’Hara here, about how stimulating local food systems can be.
The problem, however, comes from the recent budget issues the American government has been facing this year, and as such both a Senate and House agriculture committee have been set up to make cuts for the 2012 farm bill. As it stands now the two committees have proposed nearly %40 in cuts from the 2008 version of the Farm Bill, with cuts coming from some of the most vital programs including conservation, local food and beginning farmer programs. If these cuts were made it would be a huge step backwards for the recent movement in building a more sustainable agribusiness model here in the United States.
We have until November 1, 2011 to weigh in with our representatives regarding the impending slashes to the Farm Bill of 2012. If you are from a state with elected officials who sit on either of these committees such as Colorado, Michigan, Vermont, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New York, Indiana, Mississippi, Kentucky Georgia or Arkansas then please contact your officials and let them know that you find these programs important. And if you aren’t from one these states you can still weigh in by getting your elected officials on board with supporting these programs.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has set up a very nice form on the Take Action portion of their website that makes it very easy for you to have a voice in the political process, and our voices will only be heard if enough of them come together. It only takes a few minutes to make a phone call or send an e-mail and let them know what is important to you, so if this is something which you care about please take the time and do it. My voice mail is constantly clogged with robo-calls, it’s the least I can do but return the favor.
And remember, your elected officials can only speak for you if you speak for yourself first.