Important Farm Bill delights, disappoints progressives and conservatives alike

For Peoria and much of urban and suburban Illinois, the Farm Bill and agriculture policies seem mildly interesting at best, like crews of kids detassling rows of corn or a field of beans going gold, or a truck bed overflowing with produce out of a Thanksgiving cornucopia card.

However, the Farm Bill being debated this month on Capitol Hill isn’t abstract or irrelevant, and doesn’t just affect farmers and taxpayers. Rural communities, nutrition, health, hunger, the environment and much more are affected by the measure.
A new Farm Bill is moving ahead, apparently as relentless as a tornado and about as logical. In its present form it’s managed to both delight and disappoint conservatives and progressives alike. That could be a sign of brilliant compromise, or the revelation that even a new coat of paint on a barn consumed by termites can’t cover the decay for long.

Add to such confusion the arrogant intrusion of President Bush, and it’s a virtual trifecta of short-sightedness, bewilderment and gloom. Despite the House Agriculture Committee’s unanimous passage of the Farm Bill Extension Act of 2007 in late July, Bush signaled he might veto the $300 billion measure. The bill (HR 2619) was expected to come before the House of Representatives any day as of press time, and Bush faces considerable pressure to sign it with elections approaching next year.

Bush signed similar legislation in 2002, when Republicans controlled the House, but he now objects to similar provisions, citing expense and the danger of the United States being challenged at the World Trade Organization by nations that say subsidies give U.S. farmers an unfair advantage.

The pressure on the White House is especially about crop subsidies that, since they were enacted in the 1930s, have become popular with rural lawmakers and residents. A coalition of Midwestern and Southern Republicans, Democrats and farm interests has beaten back efforts to limit such aid, including one by Bush in June.

Both area Congressmen say they generally back the Farm Bill, which has about $35 billion in crop subsidies. It also raises the amount of money farmers would be paid if prices fall. And it pays farmers to grow fewer crops if they take acreage out of production under conservation programs.

Peoria Republican Ray LaHood, Congressman from the 18th District, seems mostly satisfied with the status quo.

“There hasn’t been too much complaining,” he says. “Over the last five or six years we’ve been fortunate in this district. We have the best conservation reserve programs in the country, and I hope to continue that. Our farmers – we’ve had low prices – have a safety net in terms of deficiency payments, and I think it’s been pretty successful.”

Rock Island Democrat Phil Hare, Congressman from the 17th District, also mostly supports current farm policy.

“I believe [Ag Committee] Chairman [Collin] Peterson has put together a good Farm Bill,” Hare says. “It includes a strong safety net and disaster assistance for Illinois’ farmers. I support a strong Commodity Title – out of all the new Members of Congress, my district ranks number-two in program crop payments.

“The 2007 Farm Bill makes critical investments in rural communities by renewing successful programs that provide health care, emergency communications, broadband telecommunications and economic development,” he adds.

However, in the run-up to set federal ag, rural and nutrition policies for the next five to seven years, improvements were suggested. Making up about 1% of the federal budget, the previous $90 billion Farm Bill devoted almost two-thirds of its funds for nutrition and food stamp programs, leaving about $33 billion for subsidies and other ag assistance.

Of that $33 billion, 66% went to just 10% of recipients, causing U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Ag Committee, to compare it to splitting a Hershey bar among 10 kids by giving eight squares of chocolate to one and letting the other nine fight over the last four squares.

“Is that fair, or a good use of taxpayer dollars?” he asked. “Of course not.”

The previous Farm Bill – set to expire on September 30 – had 93 percent of all payments going to growers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based watchdog agency. About 60 percent of all farmers get no aid at all, noted the group, which also found that the top 1 percent of recipients received 17 percent of the subsidies between 2003 and 2005.

Other Criticisms:

• Trade provisions trouble Hare, who blasted trade deals that are too one-sided – against American interests, he says.

• Corn and beans – which require processing or are not always used for food – seem to be favored over vegetables and fruits for human consumption, some say.

• Principle commodities, such as soybeans and corn, frequently cost more to produce than food processors’ price on the market.

Others recommend ensuring a fair price from food companies (instead of having taxpayers underwrite markets), using antitrust laws against concentrated agribusiness operations, helping local and regional food systems, fighting hunger and rural poverty, promoting stewardship of land, making healthier food more accessible, switching money from commodity subsidies to environmental safeguards protecting the soil, water and air, to rural development and alternative energies.

The proposal does lower the level above which producers could receive government subsidies so that the nation’s wealthiest farmers could no longer apply. The bill lowers the current cap – which bans government subsidies for farmers with three-year average adjusted gross incomes of $2.5 million – to $1 million, potentially saving $522 million over 10 years. It also eliminates the three-entity rule, which allows farmers to collect subsidies on up to three properties.

LaHood seems skeptical.

“It’d be hard to do that,” he says. “I think it’s discriminating to limit it to certain types of farmers, and hard to write a bill that carves out certain levels of farmers – even to define family farm. It’s possible but not probable.”

Peterson (D-Minn.) called for the lower subsidy ceiling over opposition by some commodity groups and the American Farm Bureau Federation in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who asked for a Farm Bill that would be received by Democrats as a reform package.

The changes are “a sound compromise that no one is satisfied with, but nonetheless represents real reform,” Peterson said. “It’s about being able to keep independent family farmers in business. When a guy comes in to get a loan for his crop, he has to be able to show the banker that if everything goes to hell, he can pay his loan back.”

The House Agriculture Committee’s ranking GOP member, Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), is credited with helping to reach a bipartisan consensus, but others criticize it for various reasons.

“Speaker Pelosi is rushing this massive bill to the floor in a hurry, before the American public finds out how bad it is,” said conservative Tom Schatz, president of the nonpartisan Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW), denouncing the Farm Bill as “a sham for pretending to reform farm programs.

“Taxpayers should take note that they will be stuck with a large bill for this,” he added.

Funding the measure is a concern but shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, Hare said.

“I think we’ll be OK on the money end of it,” he says. “[George Bush] shorted some programs, and we’re trying to add money back to it. [The Bush administration] has been spending money on the war, so it’s hard to add money to the bill.”

Still, progressives and other House members are dissatisfied with farm policy reforms they see as inadequate.

Hank Graddy of the Sierra Club said commodity programs would still benefit at the expense of conservation programs, despite new wetlands protection and land-conservation improvements.

“I am very disappointed that the bill that came out of committee is much weaker in the area of conservation than it should be,” he said.

The new proposal also includes production incentives benefiting such food giants as Tyson and Archer Daniels Midland. In fact, seemingly untouchable in the debate are such conglomerates –food processors and ag giants who sometimes pay prices lower than farmers’ cost of production. That means that taxpayers helping farmers actually permit agribusiness corporations to profit at the expense of farmers, consumers and taxpayers – not unlike taxpayers funding Medicaid for full-time employees of big retailers that don’t have health benefits.

William Gray, Rural Life Director for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, says there are things to like in the new Farm Bill, but also in people’s ideas for improvements to it.

“Proposals for revision of the Farm Bill by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) are focused on providing a more equitable circumstance for the persons involved in agriculture – with which I am in agreement,” says Gray, a Hancock County farmer who with a son works 750 acres, raising corn, beans, wheat and pigs.

“It is moving in a positive direction and, if it passes, will accomplish some things that definitely need to be accomplished,” continues Gray, who’s also a Permanent Deacon with the Church. “I like the payment limits as well as the funding included for nutrition programs, conservation programs and the effort to make farm programs more equitable for everyone. It [also] appears that the COOL (country of origin labeling) is going to become a reality, which is another positive step.”

Still, critics say current ag programs failed to adequately cover all farmers and also failed to provide accessible, healthy foods for people. For example, conservation programs set up to help protect air, water and wildlife aren’t available to 75% of farmer applicants, and the USDA concedes that in the last six years $1.3 billion was given to landowners who aren’t even farming.

Benefiting corporations doesn’t mean communities are helped, some populists say.

“If we don’t invest in educational opportunities, in health-care initiatives for rural communities, we’re going to be starving the rural communities that literally grow the farmers that grow our food,” said U.S. Rep. John Barrow (D-Georgia) another House Ag Committee member.

LaHood says the current Farm Bill has done that.

“We want to invest in rural communities, and it’s working well by focusing on basic necessities like good, clean water and senior housing and roads,” LaHood says.

Awareness and activism could help the proposed Farm Bill when it’s reconciled with a senate version, which is still being drafted. If the legislation passes the House, it would need to be reconciled with a Senate bill, which is still being drafted.

There, adjustments will be sought. The farm subsidy program needs fundamental reform, not just renewal, said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who introduced with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) a measure to replace price supports for commodities such as corn and beans with a revenue-based program that takes yield into account, and to limit subsidies for wealthy producers. The idea is to create a safety net that protects farmers when prices are high but harvests are poor. Subsidies currently are based on price targets alone.

“I think some of the answers of the past don’t apply today,” Durbin said. “Our job today is to make sure farmers can survive a bad year. What Sen. Brown and I are talking about is a new approach.

“I think the farm payments should be limited to those in real need,” Durbin added. “We know that there are farming operations that have become large businesses that can weather storms.”

In the House, the bi-partisan “Fairness in Farm and Food Policy Amendment” has been introduced by Wisconsin Congressmen Ron Kind (D-LaCrosse), Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) and others, who say they want to further limit subsidies to large operations and close loopholes hurting family farmers. Hare opposes their amendment, according to press aide Tim Schlittner, who added that Hare sees redirecting $500 million to more needy farmers as an improvement.

“Your friends and neighbors may thrive, or merely survive, as a result of what’s in this legislation,” says Brother David Andrews, former director of the NCRLC, based in Des Moines – one of hundreds of groups calling for reform, including churches such as United Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Presbyterians and the National Council of Churches organization.

“Policies and agribusiness developments have real effects on real people,” he added.

Before effects are set for the next several years, people should voice their opinions to Durbin and Illinois’ other Democratic Senator, Barack Obama.

“This is our chance to get it right, and it’s really out of whack,” said Daniel Imhoff, author of “Food Fight: A Citizen’s Guide to the Food and Farm Bill.”

“Nobody wants to change it who has their foot in the door. But when you really look at what’s the shape of our land, the waterways, our bodies and our kids, then you see we’re not using the money wisely.”

For an up-to-date, section-by-section summary of the legislation, look online at http://agriculture.house.gov/inside/2007FarmBill.html

The Campaign for a Renewed Rural development is online at http://www.ruralcampaign.org.

Details from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, including its paper A Fair Farm Bill for America, are online at http://www.iatp.org.

Bill Knight



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