What's at stake in the farm bill


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As late as mid-July, many observers forecast no new farm bill in 2007. However, more than a dozen Repub­licans crossed the aisle and a bipartisan farm bill passed the House on July 27 and will be taken up by the Senate after the August recess. We are still not convinced that a farm bill will pass this year, and we may see a presidential veto if one does. We look for farm bill debate to continue through the fall, and Prairie Fire intends to print thoughtful commentary that reflects competing points of view on issues like payment caps, national food sovereignty and security, com­petitive ag markets and much more. Our first offering is the following article by Bread for the World CEO David Beckmann, which we are confident will provoke a flood of spirited reaction and response. By David Beckmann This year, Congress has been busy reauthorizing the U.S. farm bill—a piece of legislation whose scope is much broader than its name implies. Renewed every five years, the farm bill is the main source of federal support for rural development in the United States, and it contains the Food Stamp Program. It determines what foods are available to U.S. consumers and how we deliver emergency food aid internationally. Farm bill policies and priorities touch everyone in this country and millions of people overseas.

Who Needs the Farm Bill?

The Sloan family in Ohio. Vernon and Carol Sloan manage Sloan Farm in Stryker, Ohio. They are fourth-generation farmers, growing mainly corn, soybeans and wheat. They write, "We’ve seen a lot of changes in farming, especially over the past 25 years. It’s becoming harder and harder to make a living by farming. We’ve watched friends and family members forced to sell their farms. Our own son works an eight-hour-a-day job off the farm to support his family. His 16-year-old son is hoping to become a farmer, too." Job seekers in West Holmes County, Mississippi. Calvin Head and Tom Collins grew up in Miles­ton, West Holmes County, one of the poorest counties in the United States. They returned home after college: "We knew there were no large manufacturing plants or any other type of industry…. I knew I had to take what skills I had learned and implement some of them in the region," said Head. When they began the West Holmes Community Devel­op­ment Organization, Head notes, "We had to train each of [the employees], people who didn’t have jobs, didn’t have very many skills, were limited in terms of their transportation. They are now people who are doing the day-to-day operations" of a farmers’ market, community store, day care center and information center. Dozens of young people work for West Holmes Com­munity Development, this in a region where jobs are in short supply. The Peck family in Oregon. De Ette Peck is raising two girls on her own, working and going to college full time to become a community field nurse. She also finds time to volunteer with the Oregon Food Bank, Head Start and the Poverty Ad­visory Committee. De Ette is thankful for the food stamps and educational grants that have enabled her to feed her children and build a better future for them. “You can look at government programs this way: They’re investing in me. And I’m a great investment!” she said. "I want to have a bumper sticker that reads: When I leave poverty I want to take as many people with me as I can." The Peck family appears in a DVD produced by Bread for the World and seen by anti-hunger activists nationwide. De Ette and her daughters represent several other working families who decided ultimately not to go on camera because of the stigma of receiving food stamps. They also represent more than 25 million low-income people — half of them children — who receive food stamp benefits each month. The town of Nangola, Mali. Like Calvin Head and Tom Collins, Ibrahima Coulibaly also returned to his hometown after college. With training in agricultural prac­tices, he grows corn and millet and cares for mango trees and livestock in Nan­gola, Mali. "In Mali, 80 percent of the population work as farmers. In my own family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings — all have worked the land…." "I love the feeling of working the soil and watching new life grow, but it’s a hard living," said Ibrahima. "Farmers have difficulty sell­ing our goods in our own country, because we cannot compete with the low prices of imported products from the United States and Europe, where the governments provide support to some of their farmers. I have seen how this hurts people in poverty."

The Farm Bill and Hunger

Vernon and Carol, Calvin, Tom, De Ette, Ibrahima and their families are all directly affected by the U.S. farm bill. The structure of the farm bill plays a powerful role in determining which people get access to the resources they need to build communities and support families, and which do not. Over time, the farm bill has become less and less successful at helping people who need it the most and more and more skewed toward special interests that benefit richly from outdated policies that originated dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. Major policies within the farm bill are patently unfair yet persist because of influential stakeholders with entrenched interests, large lobbying budgets and generous campaign contributions. I am president of Bread for the World, a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad. This year, Bread for the World is urging our nation’s decision makers to change the farm bill in ways that will help the people who need it most. Bread for the World has worked for many years on the nutrition and food aid titles of the farm bill, which includes funding for the Food Stamp Program — our country’s first line of de­fense against hunger. But without meaningful reform of fundamentally unfair policies, higher-priority needs will remain unmet. As long as our current system of commodity payments re­mains the same, we are hindering our farm and rural neighbors in this country and around the world from making a decent living and feeding their families. The U.S. House of Repre­sentatives passed their version of the 2007 farm bill on July 27. Although the House bill provides significant fund­ing increases in nutrition assistance for hungry people here and abroad, Congress refused to shift money from wealthy land­owners to farm and rural people who really need help. To end hunger, our nation must both invest in food assistance for the short term and change long-term policies that allow hunger and poverty to persist here at home and abroad. Bread for the World is advocating for broad reform of the farm bill in order to: • Ensure low-income people an adequate, nutritious diet; • Strengthen rural communities; • Help farmers earn a sufficient livelihood and be good stewards of the land; and • Allow small-scale farmers in poor countries to earn their way out of poverty.

A Multifaceted Myth: What’s Good for the Nation’s Largest Farms Is Good for Everyone

Why has the farm bill remained mired in the status quo despite a compelling case for reform? Part of the reason is the farm lobby, a collection of interest groups that take advantage of large budgets for advertising and campaign contributions to influence members of Con­gress. The members of the House Agriculture Commit­tee represent districts that receive nearly half of all farm bill commodity payments. Affluent, well-organized people in those districts receive a disproportionate share of farm payments. Another part of the problem is the complexity of farm policy and the myths that have grown up around it — not least the notion that only farmers can understand farm policy. If the would-be reformers only grasped the nuances of the commodity payment system, the argument goes, they would realize that it is indeed fair. The key to the circular system of myths about the farm bill is the premise that what is good for the country’s largest farms is good for everyone.

Myth: The status quo is good for all farmers

Those who support the current farm bill usually say that they represent "farmers' interests." But we can’t consider "farmers" or even "farmers who receive commodity payments" to be monolithic groups who work under similar circumstances and share similar political interests. Nationally, two-thirds of farmers receive no commodity payments at all. Most payments go to growers of five program crops—corn, cotton, rice, soy and wheat. Among those farmers who are eligible for support, there is gross discrepancy in distribution of benefits. In Nebraska, the largest 10 percent of farms receive half of all payments — an average of about $49,289 in the years 2003 and 2004. The bottom 80 percent of commodity payment recipients, in those same years, received an average of $3,672 per year. And the discrepancies in Nebraska are far less egregious than the national statistics. Farmers face a variety of complicated, uncertain situations. During a recent visit to Nebraska, where I grew up, I met older farmers who were worried that they wouldn’t be able to work much longer, farm families who also hold jobs off the farm in order to support themselves, young people who cannot afford to get into farming. I also met several couples who were forced to sell their farms. The wave of farm consolidations has been driven by the increasing percentage of commodity payments going to the largest farms. Some friends I saw in Nebraska have a small feeding operation and are barely making ends meet. The wife supplements their income with a monogramming business, and they are past retirement age but can’t afford to retire. On the other hand, my cousin and her husband are lucky enough to own 2,000 acres — which I’m told is about what it takes to support a family now — and have received payments for their corn and soybean production. Neither I nor Bread for the World is criticizing people who have based their farming decisions on the commodity payment system. Rather, we are saying that the system needs reform. Some farmers are already choosing a different route. Tim Nissen has a 500-acre farm in Cedar County, Neb. He had been receiving commodity payments for corn and soybeans, but several years ago, he decided to diversify his operations. Now he also grows plums, choke cherries and grapes. "Until you get off the treadmill" of growing program crops and receiving commodity payments, Nissen said, "it’s hard to see there are alternatives." When I testified on the farm bill before the Senate Agriculture Committee in April, I explained that Bread for the World supports a thoughtful transition to a more market-oriented system. Alternative approaches to helping farmers — through conservation, rural development, improved crop insurance or other ways to manage risks — could be viable options. In order to provide a broader, more equitable system of support for U.S. farmers and rural communities, payments should no longer be tied to the production of specific crops. We should ensure that payment programs comply with international trade rules. We should provide more support to those who need it most—like new farmers and small operations—and phase out support to those who need it least. We should reward good conservation practices and find ways to encourage crop diversification.

Myth: The status quo is good for everyone in rural communities

The farm bill originated in the midst of the Great Depression as a way to help people in rural areas. But the rural landscape has changed dramatically since then. In the 1930s, nearly a quarter of the entire U.S. population worked in agriculture. Now, only about 6 percent of rural Americans work on farms. The majority of rural jobs are in service industries such as retail outlets. Most of the people in rural America who really need help get no help from the farm bill. The breadth of poverty in rural America is startling in a wealthy country like ours — 14 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. And the poverty level itself is only about half of what economists say families need for true economic self-sufficiency. The problem is worse for children in rural areas: 20 percent are poor compared to 17 percent in urban areas. Unemployment and underemployment rates are higher in rural areas, too, and many rural counties have lost population as people move away to seek better jobs and services. The counties I visited during my latest visit to Nebraska have significant rates of poverty. As in many rural counties around the country, more than half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. On the other hand, I saw economic development initiatives, such as a program which makes loans to rural businesses that couldn’t get conventional loans. A reformed farm bill would provide more funding for such efforts. The traditional commodity payment system no longer combats rural poverty as originally intended. Some people are surprised to learn that, while the farm bill is the major source of federal support for rural development, rural development is only a small, frequently underfunded part of the farm bill. The next farm bill needs to reflect the fact that it is actually the non-farm economy that sustains most rural communities. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, many rural development strategies show promise—improving access to technology, attracting a diverse business base, developing regional long-range plans and taking advantage of assets such as natural beauty or recreational opportunities. In the farm and ranch communities of the Great Plains, nearly 60 percent of job growth in the 1990s came from people creating their own jobs by starting a small, nonfarm business. Promoting entrepreneurial efforts such as the West Holmes Com­munity Development Or­ganization will better serve rural people. I was interested to read "The Face of the Niemi Report" by Sally Herrin and W. Don Nelson, which appeared in the July issue of Prairie Fire. The Niemi Report summarizes quantitative economic research about how Nebraska can build a productive economy even though farm income is falling. The article illustrates the report’s recommendations with the story of the Switzer family in Burwell, Neb. The Switzers have opened a canoeing business — Calamus Outfit­ters — which supplements their cattle farm income and takes advantage of Americans’ growing interest in outdoor recreation. This is another of the many examples of how preserving natural resources and encouraging entrepreneurs can strengthen rural economies.

Myth: The status quo is good for U.S. consumers

This aspect of the myth came to the fore in late July, during the full House debate on the farm bill. House Agriculture Commit­tee chair­­man Collin Peter­son said in a letter to all 434 of his fellow representatives that the current commodity payment system keeps food prices low. Without these com­modity payments, Amer­i­cans will have trouble paying for groceries. The facts do not support Peterson’s argument. In their raw, unprocessed form, commodities make up only a small portion of the value of finished food products. For example, the cost of the corn accounts for only 4 percent of the price of an 18-ounce box of corn flakes. Most of the cost of the food in grocery stores comes from processing, packaging and marketing. Foods which are less processed — typically fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops — do not receive commodity payments under the current system, so their cost could not be driven up by reform.

Passing the Farm Bill We Need

It’s time for a farm bill that serves the public rather than the entrenched interests that have come to dominate farm bill politics. Bread for the World’s grassroots advocacy efforts have been augmented by a broad coalition of organizations — secular and religious, liberal and conservative — who support a fair farm bill. The media and public opinion are shifting as well. While in the past, special interests were able to push farm bills through Congress with little fanfare, this year’s farm bill is garnering widespread news coverage. Editorials in more than 70 national and local newspapers have called for farm bill reform. Many other papers have printed opinion pieces and letters to the editor, and radio programs have aired discussions and debates. Late in July, a poll on public attitudes toward the farm bill was conducted in a broad sampling of rural congressional districts. The 1,340 participants were asked to weigh the persuasiveness of various arguments for farm bill reform. More than 80 percent of the respondents said that arguments about farm consolidation causing difficulty for small and young farmers were convincing. An equal number were moved by arguments about the need for rural development rather than payments to less than 1 percent of rural residents. More than half rated these points "very convincing." The arguments against reform were rarely rated as persuasive. When it comes right down to it, Americans value fairness. If they have the facts, they support doing the right thing. The combined push for farm bill reform won funding increases for nutrition and conservation in the farm bill passed by the House of Representatives. But the House refused to shift money from wealthy landowners to farm and rural people who really need help. The bill increases direct commodity payments by 50 percent, and some people would be able to collect more in payments than under the 2002 farm bill. The bill also reinstates part of a cotton support program that was eliminated in August 2006 after being ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization. In the House’s vote on the farm bill, political expediency trumped moral responsibility. In the end, the House made only cosmetic changes to the outdated commodity payment system that benefits a few at the expense of broader, more equitable support for U.S. farmers of modest means and rural communities more generally. This system also continues to damage to farmers in Africa and other poor parts of the world. But the farm bill debate is far from over. There are still many steps in the process of finalizing this legislation. Major farm bill decisions remain to be made in the Senate and then in conference. We must urge the Senate, particularly members of the Senate Agriculture Com­mittee, to take bold steps to improve the farm bill. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is a member of the Agriculture Committee and could be an influential voice as a farm-state senator who supports a fair farm bill. The outcome of the 2007 farm bill debate cannot be treated as a foregone conclusion. Bread for the World and others have already shaken up the business-as-usual approach to the farm bill. We need to keep working to win attention and resources for farmers, rural communities, low-income people and struggling farmers overseas who are not treated fairly under the current farm bill. Farm bill policies and priorities touch everyone in this country and millions of people overseas. Now is the time to ensure that farm bill funding reaches the people it was intended to help in the first place.

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