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Center for Rural Affairs on Farm Program Reform

  • Well, you know, that's just like, your opinion, man.
    By Dan Owens
    Center for Rural America, August 24, 2008
    Straight to the Source

Well, after two years, a farm bill, some bourbon and who knows how many blog posts, I left the Center for Rural Affairs and headed to Ohio for graduate school. It has been a privilege to work at the Center for Rural Affairs, and thanks to all of you who have fought for a better farm bill and a better future for rural America. And don't worry (not that you were); I have a sneaking suspicion you may hear from me in this space again.

Anyway, this past week Ariane Lotti (former Sustainable Agriculture Coalition intern now CSA farmer in Iowa) pretty much nailed the single most important reason that the push for fundamental farm program reform failed in the 2008 farm bill:

Why should we care about the loss of what has come to be called the "agriculture of the middle," the mid-sized family farms that were once the backbone of the farm economy? In short, because we lost the grassroots base for action on federal farm policy...

As the [1980s] farm crisis took hold, policy change could not happen fast enough to stop or reverse the heavy bleeding of farmers out of America's heartland. (Nor, one could argue, was there the political will to keep the mid-sized family farmers on the land.) Farmers lost the farm and left Rural America, and with them went the voice of opposition to farm policies that rewarded the consolidation, monoculturization, and corporatization of agriculture.

This is a generalization, but true. (I would also contend that along with many disappearing family farmers, most of the hope for positive farm program change disappeared for those who managed to keep the farm). The political types in DC who write farm bills, and especially those in power who determine the fate of commodity programs, write them for what they view as their constituency- big commodity farmers. They are not going to write the bill to help small family farms because they do not feel there are enough of those left to matter. Or to be more precise, there aren't enough of those left to matter politically.

And hey, if there are some innovative things going on, a few farmers here and there starting up CSAs and whatnot, well, the DC politicos figure they can think up a program for them as well. And they do, so we have farm to school programs, value-added ag programs and the many many other programs that support sustainable agriculture. Which is all well and good. After all, if we're going to subsidize big commodity ag to get ever-bigger, why shouldn't sustainable/alternative agriculture get their piece of the pie?  But, as we all know, it isn't enough.

There is a school of thought that these small programs are intended to "buy off" the opposition to excessive commodity programs within the sustainable agriculture community. This may be partially true for a very few organizations. But the really insiduous mentality here is that such "sustainable" programs are viewed by politicians as wholly separate from "conventional" commodity programs.

Those of us firmly in the farm policy reform camp like to think of our hard-won programs supporting sustainable ag as being the "alternative" to commodity agriculture. We think our programs will eventually take over and become the new commodity programs. I can absolutely positively guarantee that none of those who determined the fate of the farm bill feel this way. They are completely wedded to the idea that conventional ag and sustainable ag are simply two interest groups scrambling for resources in the federal budget- not two fundamentally competing philosophies of food production and the proper role of the government in society.

And every time that philosophical clash plays out, I'm sorry to say we're on the losing end. Payment limits, packer ban- we get our asses handed to us. Budget difficulties? It's a hundred million dollars or so in sustainable ag programs on the chopping block, not $5 billion in wasteful direct payments, even in a year that has seen the highest grain prices ever. Pitiful. So what's the answer?

Organizing. It's that simple. There are two ways to create change in politics- money and people. (absent the two, status quo prevails). We will never have the money to compete with industrial agriculture. Hell, our organizations can't even make campaign donations. So we have to get the people. And those people have to fight- and fight again. Somebody once said in political organizing, you had better enjoy losing. Because you're going to lose and lose and lose and lose and maybe, 20 years from now, you'll win. Maybe. And that's the truth. How many decades of organizing did it take before the New Deal came around? Civil Rights Act? You get the idea. Once we have the people, we'll win.

And the fight for fundamental farm program reform (and the enforcement of antitrust law, dammit) is not all that different from earlier fights. It goes straight to the fundamental question of the past few decades- does government exist to facilitate market forces or to rein in market forces that, left unchecked, work against the common good? We know how the mortgage mess played out. It's not all that different in a low-priced grain year- $20 billion or so in direct subsidies to ensure a steady supply of inputs to industrial agriculture behemoths (see 2005). Hello, corporate welfare.

I suppose this is my populist pitch for a farm reform coalition. The principles behind supporting family farms and rural communities are no different than many of the principles behind other prominent issues. We must link them with common themes and political arguments and we must organize to scare the living hell out of every politician. There is simply no other way. And let me emphasize, this isn't rural vs. urban. That bullshit dividing line has been used in every farm bill discussion to disenfranchise those arguing for reform. This is community vs. corporate; competition vs. consolidation.

And since I'm leaving, a note to the funders out there: you need to fund organizing. We don't need any more damn papers or publications to sit on a shelf (well, we do, but not many). Fund organizing, and lots of it. Organizing is expensive. It takes a lot of time and effort. But it is the only way to make a difference. And while we're about it, get over your hostility to grassroots lobbying. Lobbying is part of the political system. Done right, it is noble and good. So embrace a little controversy and fund some people to do grassroots organizing and kick-ass lobbying campaigns. You can't win without conflict.

One last word before I get out and leave everyone alone. Food doesn't vote. If you want change in the food system, stop talking about food so damn much. We all know there are not enough people out there who really give a damn about where their food comes from to make a substantial change in the food system, particularly people who are poor. And when I say substantial change, I mean replace industrial agriculture with true family farms. So unless everyone is prepared to give up on the Midwest (and some probably are), stop talking food when it comes to the farm bill (unless you're Tom Philpott, who is the only one I've seen do it well). It doesn't win, and it will only result in the piecemeal programs mentioned above.

People vote, and if you want to organize, you have to talk about the common issues the vast majority of people care about, the issues facing them in their daily lives. And you have to be willing to talk to them while they're eating Aunt Jemima frozen sausuages wrapped in blueberry pancakes and microwaved in a folding paper tray, drenched in high fructose corn syrup.

It's been fun, and I'll be back.  Oh, and if you want to for some reason, my email is danowens (at) gmail.com.

UPDATE:  OK, so perhaps I was a little vociferous in denouncing food politics.  Linking food to other concerns (such as school lunch food safety, which was helpfully suggested to me this morning) can be helpful and is a good thing.  Please, please do not only talk about food.  It should always be related to something that appeals beyond the "foodie" audience (not my word, but I'll use it anyway).  I love all of you who are motivated by access to better food.  There's just not enough of you to win over Collin Peterson. 

dan

Read Comments at: http://www.cfra.org/blog/2008/08/24/well-you-know-thats-just-your-opinion-man

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