In the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw that American farmers were producing too much; they weren’t earning off their extra work or surplus. In came the New Deal with the first-ever Farm Bill, set to end overproduction by paying farmers to grow less. In the ’70s, a man named Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture at the time, thought that idea was nuts, and so he paid farmers instead to “get big or get out”—referring to farming by the thousands of acres and those devoted to just a few crops. It was a perfectly good idea at the time for a country still discovering the value of its land and the new global marketplace, which seemed to have no problem taking on the surplus. We couldn’t know then what has happened: farmers devoting more space for secondary, inedible products like corn syrup and cow feed than simple crops to feed us.
Not until around 2006 did the majority of us start to seriously question our agricultural policies, so when the last Farm Bill came up in 2008, we didn’t have much input ready to give. Writers like Sam Hurst, that Pollan guy you might have heard about and Slow Food USA have fueled the debate ever since, and the public has come to new conclusions: Maybe there shouldn’t be direct payments to farmers if that’ll only result in compromised crops; and if we do use government money for incentives, maybe it should go to those making both food and the soil it grows in healthier.
Senate Agriculture Committee member Kirsten Gillibrand, the first New York senator to serve on the committee in nearly 40 years, had some solid suggestions after holding listening sessions with farmers across the state this summer. We were ready to talk Farm Bill for its next renewal in September 2012. But last week, public opinion almost got shut out with a never-before, way-too-early closed-door decision.
We’ll either have to thank the disagreeable super committee or all of you who signed that petition against the so-called “secret Farm Bill” being tucked into the deficit reduction plan that failed with a stalemate Monday. If it had passed, expedited policies would’ve actually extended payments to commodity crop growers for the next five years while cutting costs for everything else: specialty crops, conservation and nutrition.
There is bad news: There will be automatic cuts for everyone, and major ones. But you could also see that as a good thing. Commodity crops may be forced off their 40-year-old cushion. (At least there’ll be some discussion.) In fact, if you haven’t told Congress you dig the Local Food, Farms and Jobs Act, here‘s a good place to start, then say a proper thanks for another year over your turkey tomorrow.