I sat down to a friend’s dinner table last week with a hunk of acorn squash roasted in brown butter, a mixed greens salad with a yogurt vinaigrette, root vegetable fritters, various jars of home-pickled and home-jammed produce, bread with goat cheese and red wine (a nice spicy one, for under 20 bucks)–all grown or produced within 30 miles. The meal was made by a 20-something farm intern in upstate New York, who’d love to hear good news next week.
That’s when The Farm Bill, renewed every five years (most recently in 2008), might reach the legislature more than a year before it should. The super committee has been tasked with cutting $1.2 trillion from the national deficit by November 23rd, and the Farm Bill may go along with it. If that happens, nothing about our food policies will change—commodity crops will still be supported through subsidies for the next five years, possibly with additional insurance.
But wait. Senators Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) have a plan: the Local Food, Farms and Jobs Act, which is whole-heartedly backed by Slow Food USA and the many agricultural groups that were actually involved in its drafting.
Pingree’s proposal is everything a seeker of regional, seasonal, organic, biodiverse foods would want. Our local foodshed has changed since the last Farm Bill, and it could stand to change a lot more. People are flocking to outdoor markets even in winter to support their local growers even though it costs more, because they know it’s valuable. (Both health-wise and in terms of taste.) Local teachers and students are growing gardens even though their schools didn’t want them. We’re buying kohlrabi and rutabagas and whole, heirloom grains grown in state—things a lot of us didn’t have or had even heard of five years ago.
The market for “local” has grown tremendously notes a new USDA report and local food growers have spread the wealth, with an average of 13 employees for every $1 million made versus three on farms that don’t cater to regional markets. The Local Food, Farms and Jobs Act would make all of this easier.
But right now if the so-called “specialty crops” these people are growing (meaning anything other than commodity) were somehow destroyed—say, in a hurricane or flood—there is no direct government aid. If you grow commodity crops, however, you typically not only get subsidies, but with this new Republican-backed “secret farm bill,” as some folks have dubbed it, you might also get crop insurance.
“But aren’t subsidies and insurance the same thing?” I asked Slow Food USA.
“You said it,” laughs Angelines Alba Lamb, their Recipe for Change campaign manager. “It really is. Basically it’s saying, okay, we’re not going to pay people directly to grow things, but that we would subsidize any hardship they face. But it’s looking like we could end up paying more out to commodity crop growers because of how insurance works.”
She went on to say that the bill would only cover commodity growers, instead of those with mixed crops. “It would be difficult to get insurance,” says Lamb. “The thinking is, How do you measure different crops? Because no matter who grows this commodity crop, you’re all payed the same, but the people growing asparagus in different states, it’s a different market.”
From her perspective, there are other downfalls to the Farm Bill that might pass next week. “We’d be looking at a pared down farm bill,” she says, “there would also be money taken out of conservation and nutrition.”
Her suggestion is to sign this petition for the Local Food, Farms and Jobs Act, which she’ll be taking to D.C. next week with over 11,000 signatures as of last night. “This is something they’ve been working on for a really long time and have gotten input from the community and we’re really excited about this.” says Lamb. “We stand behind the entire piece of legislation.”
From where we’re sitting, we’re at a real turning point in American production. People are starting to make and grow interesting things again, here—wine and cheese and charcuterie, preserves and pickles and beer—things people in other countries actually want to buy. Brooklyn Brewery beer is a huge hit in Europe. Meanwhile, meat with antibiotics and GMOs—things that the outdated Farm Bill support—are things China and Russia don’t want. In fact, they’re looking to outright ban them.
The Local Food, Farms and Jobs Act would reward those making good stuff and encourage more of it. Just think, one day the people of Bordeaux could one day be eating our goat cheese and pouring our vintage Sonoma County and Finger Lakes wines.