It’s not your father’s Farm Bill

Even as students on an urban campus, we all have a stake in the new Farm Bill.

by Holly Lahd

Here on a campus in the middle of a metropolitan area, students are studying commodity price programs, conservation reserve programs and the potential to regulate feedlots as point-source pollutants. Why? Because this year the U.S. Farm Bill is being redrafted and there are a whole new group of interests – environmentalists, taxpayer watchdogs, ethanol fans – wanting to shape this year’s bill. This farm bill isn’t your father’s farm bill; hopefully, it will not be another version of the 2002 Farm Bill either.

The Farm Bill is a massive piece of funding that includes price supports for corn, soybeans, rice and other crops for farmers when the market price gets too low, and money to finance school lunch programs. You can thank the farm bill for the somewhat suspicious-looking hot lunch meals that only managed to cost $1.50 in elementary school.

The Farm Bill is another remnant of FDR’s New Deal programs, originally meant to bail out farmers during the dust bowl days. Since then it has ballooned into a permanent program that has a multibillion dollar budget. The Farm Bill is to be reauthorized by Congress every five years and it was last passed in 2002. This means 2007 is the year to mold this bill to highlight Americans’ new concerns about our food system’s impact on the environment, rural development, and homegrown energy.

But a lot has changed since 2002. The science behind global warming has made climate change a pressing issue that can’t be excluded from the farm bill calculations. Politicians, both rural and urban, are jumping over themselves to discuss celulosic ethanol and biomass possibilities. And President Bush has already named his favorite energy crop. (Who can forget the infamous switchgrass reference in the 2006 State of the Union?)

So who is affected by the Farm Bill? Of course farmers, but also everyone who consumes food or cares about environmental quality. And since we all eat food, this means both rural and urban Americans should care about the Farm Bill.

When large corporate farms are supported with commodity price supports tied to the amount they produce, we see bigger and bigger industrial farms driving smaller farmers out of business. In essence, the more crops you grow, the more money you can get from the commodities program. When this happens, the erosion of the family farm in America is accelerated even faster.

Another problem is to receive the commodity payments; it doesn’t matter what type of agriculture processes you use and the resulting environmental effects. So why not move money away from the commodities program and into existing programs that reward farmers for investing in conservation efforts, erosion prevention, and investments in water quality? Expanding these programs would mean federal dollars would go to farmers who improved their farms with the environment in mind, and would reduce the direct payment to produce more and more mega farms.

There are also international implications of our current Farm Bill. The Farm Bill encourages overproduction of crops like rice and cotton which in turn pushes down worldwide crop prices. This hurts farmers around the world, but especially in developing countries, where farmers do not have such price supports. The current Farm Bill creates a situation of unfair competition for the world’s farmers, destabilizing farmers and communities worldwide who don’t have the giant agribusinesses to receive their food from.

The 2007 Farm Bill can only live up to its name if it does more for all aspects of agriculture- rural development, protecting family farms, conservation, and homegrown, renewable energy.

With our national debt and deficit growing from the continuation of the war in Iraq, extra funding isn’t likely for new Farm Bill programs. But we also don’t have time to wait for more funding to slowly transition the Farm Bill to more conservation measures; 2007 needs to be the year to make this fundamental change.

As students in Minnesota, we have a unique seat to observe the Farm Bill’s makings with Minnesota’s own Rep. Colin Peterson (District 7-D) as the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and Rep. Tim Walz (District 1-D) on the House of Representatives’ Agriculture Committee. This new Midwest Leadership, drastically different than the traditional southern committee chairs, means new opportunities to promote conservation and renewable energy programs in the Farm Bill that directly benefit Midwest Farmers and Communities.

So here is my call to students: even if you will never visit a farm in your entire life, learn about the Farm Bill. Its implications are much wider that its name implies.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected].