Sadie Weinberger ‘13 reminds us that the Farm Bill isn’t the only piece of legislation that affects farms and farmers in this country:
About a week ago, the satirical “news source” The Onion published an article headlined “Congressional High Priest Concocts Farm Subsidy Bill In Legislative Cauldron.” Despite its utter absurdity, I often feel that the Onion writers are pretty much the only ones who really know what’s going on these days. You don’t have to read the article to get the joke: the process of creating the Farm Bill has been, and always is, so complex and inaccessible to the public that it may as well be some dark ritual conducted by men in black robes in the dead of night. And, in fact, I read one more jab into the quip, which is that even the members of Congress do not completely understand what they’re doing when they “concoct” the bill.
This might seem like old news; after all, the Farm Bill is renewed every four years, and that should have meant a clean adoption of a new bill—or, rather, a revised bill—by the end of the 2012 session. That was me making a little joke, since we all know Congress doesn’t work like that. The fact is, Congress is even now introducing new bills that would affect the provisions of the Farm Bill, and we ought to be keeping them in sight. The end of 2012 didn’t mean the end of farm-related legislation, despite the cessation of talks and workshops revolving around Farm Bill activism.
In fact, just in the last week, Congress has introduced two such bills: the Farm Program Integrity Act and the Protect Our Prairies Act. The former, a bipartisan bill introduced on February 12, aims to close the loopholes in farm program payments that allow non-working or absentee farmers to receive subsidy payments. The bill allows for payments to working farmers and one additional non-working manager per farm. In fact, the House Agriculture Committee considered this proposal last year as well, but did not adopt it. Many sustainable agriculture organizations, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, are strongly in support of this bill, especially as we consider the new Farm Bill.
The Protect Our Prairies Act is part of a conservation effort folded into the Farm Bill that basically pays farmers not to farm certain areas of land in order to prevent erosion and development of valuable landscapes. This bill, also bipartisan, is a bit different in that it is actually designed to save taxpayers and the government money by prohibiting federal commodity payments on newly broken native sod and reducing federal subsidies by 50% on that land. Loss of grassland in prairie areas has led to erosion, fewer opportunities for small ranchers, and damage to local ecosystems and economies.
We should keep in mind that even though the New York Times stopped publishing articles about it, the fight over the 2012 Farm Bill is not over yet. Agricultural legislation is being introduced and passed all the time. Let’s all keep an eye out and keep ourselves informed.
Looking for follow up from last week’s New York Times Magazine food issue? Look no further: here’s Mark Bittman, talking about his experiences in the Central Valley on LA’s KCRW.
A couple of weeks ago we wrote about how sustainable agriculture tends to defy easy answers— and how that quality is one of its most compelling. So to start the week, here are two stories that demonstrate exactly how thorny thinking carefully about where your food comes from can get.
First there’s a domestic tale from our neighbors to the south in New York, where backyard chickens are laying eggs with detectable (but not necessarily harmful) levels of lead. Soil contamination, especially in urban areas, is a huge issue for many would-be backyard gardeners; the Yale Farm site was chosen in large part because unlike much of the rest of the city, it has lead-free soil. There are quick, cheap soil tests that you can do to determine whether soil is plantable or not, but no such standards exist for raising chickens or other backyard livestock— leaving many families without guidance, wondering if their attempts to raise their own are actually doing them more harm than good.
Then there’s the international: entrepreneurs in Haiti are trying to stimulate local economies by having natives grow the peanuts given to malnourished children in their communities. It’s a smart idea in theory, creating jobs on farms and in processing plants, intending to enrich the population rather than keeping them dependent on foreign aid. The catch is that the peanuts are vulnerable to fungi and toxins, requiring intensive chemical management— and that the multinational companies importing peanuts work on a massive scale and do so much more cheaply than these small-scale startups can. So far the UN has been willing to buy the more expensive product, supporting the long-term vision at work, and it will be interesting to see if the Haitian farmers can create a more competitive price without sacrificing the unique elements of their business model.
And because it’s Monday, a little bonus something fun: David Chang, Adam Gopnik and a host of others talk food on The Moth Radio Hour.
The YSFP is all about fermentation this fall: former Lazarus summer intern Cody Hooks is running canning classes for New Haven natives, Farm Manager Jeremy Oldfield just gave a demo on how to DIY sauerkraut, kimchee and kombucha, and next month we’ll be hosting the guru himself, Wild Fermentation author Sandor Ellix Katz, for a talk about his years experimenting with miso, mead, and more.
To get you up to speed before Sandor’s talk, the New York Times has a number of articles on fermentation and microbiology this week: check out Sandor visiting friend of the YSFP (and former Chewing the Fat speaker!) David Chang’s Momofuku and answering questions about at-home fermentation, plus a piece about the microbiologist partnering with chefs all over the country to help them understand the scientific underpinnings of fermented flavors.
By now you’ve probably seen the New York Times’ controversial summation of a Stanford study on the nutritional content of organic food, headlined “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.” For those of us who are organic advocates it’s an incredibly frustrating claim, misunderstanding many of the most crucial reasons that we try to eschew pesticides and herbicides in the food we grow and eat.
Time and again, studies have shown that conventional, chemical agriculture contributes to climate change, worsening storms and droughts even as it strips soils and ecosystems of their diversity and resilience, making them less able to self-regulate and, eventually, correct. A system that makes processed corn product cheaper cattle feed than corn itself (never mind the grasses that comprise their natural diet) seem self-evidently broken. An organic strawberry with no more vitamins than its chemically farmed counterpart is still worlds better for the environment, and likely for the people who grew it, who are exposed in the field to sprays of neurotoxic pesticide levels high above the acceptable residue eventually tested.
Then there is the economic aspect: the fact that organic farms are often small-scale and local, strengthening civic economies and creating robust regional foodsheds, supporting a variety of small businesses. The conditions for laborers on large chemical farms are famously inhumane, with some legitimately qualifying as enslavement. The rise of an alternative food system has encouraged some former farmworkers to start their own farms, transforming them from underpaid, undervalued field hands to business-owning entrepreneurs.
But none of that makes for a pithy headline, or fodder for angry debate. One of the greatest strengths of the sustainable food movement is that it isn’t a catchy phrase or quote, or a simple answer to anything. This means that the media will continue to get it wrong— but that, as long we keep reading and thinking critically— we are bound to be closer to getting it right.
If you’re looking for some lunchtime reading, here are two stories that present a top-to-bottom approach to the issues facing farmers and the food community right now: Tom Philpott considers why organically managed soils stand up better to the extreme weather conditions produced by climate change than their conventional counterparts, and The New York Times gives us a look at who decides what gets labeled as Certified Organic. Both serve as a good reminder of all that goes into what ends up in supermarkets and on the table— and that the process is rarely a simple one.
The New York Times’ Room for Debate takes up the question of the Farm Bill this morning, asking seven experts to weigh in on what the bill does right and what needs to be expanded, reduced or jettisoned entirely in the 2012 update.