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By Laura Stec

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About this blog: I've been attracted to food for good and bad reasons for many years. From eating disorder to east coast culinary school, food has been my passion, profession & nemesis. I've been a sugar addict, a 17-year vegetarian, a food and en...  (More)

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Free Market Farm Bill or Farce?

Uploaded: Feb 19, 2023

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are I’m from the government and I’m here to help."

Ronald Reagan hit a resonant chord with this now famous quote. Self-reliance is a highly regarded trait in the US, especially throughout the heartland farm country.

Or is it? Anyone involved with modern day agriculture knows that statement is pretty much all hat and no cattle. “The scale of government intervention by the Farm Bill makes talk of free markets merely rhetorical,” writes Imhoff in chapter one of Food Fight. “Conventional farmers stay afloat by farming the system, rather than growing what might best serve their particular tract of land or provide for more well-rounded, healthy diets.”

Farm Bill origins began as a temporary solution in the 1930’s to lift millions of Americans out of the economic and ecological effects of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, (pg. 37) but it has morphed into an ongoing handout to wealthy business. Billions of our annual tax dollars have artificially propped up our agricultural system for decades. Subsidies created as a critical safety net in bad years have become an annual expected benefit for “absentee landlords, tractor dealers and insurance companies that service farmers, as well as corporate agribusiness, grain distributors, animal feed operations and ethanol producers that purchase subsidized crops.” (pg. 21)

- photo by Diane Choplin

No matter, many Americans are grateful because it makes our food cheap. (In comparison to other developed countries, Americans spend a smaller percentage of income on food). However, Imhoff points out that while our grocery bills might be smaller, we end up paying for that loaf of bread, pound of ground beef and other commodity-based foods THREE times.

1. At the checkout stand
2. In taxes that subsidize the commodity crops that make up our purchases
3. In environmental cleanup and medical costs related to commodity-based agriculture

This makes me madder than a wet hen.

- photo by Diane Choplin

Unfortunately, “three in five U.S. farmers get no payments at all, while the top 5 percent of subsidy recipients (often producer coops, Indian tribes and large corporate entities) average about $710,150 annually (between 1995 – 2010). (pg. 25) Family farms are the ones often left out of the process. Fruits and vegetables - mostly forgotten.

Besides the Commodity Program, there are 11 other titles or focus areas in the most recent 2018 bill (see graphic below). Next week we’ll look closer at the Nutrition title, the largest part of the bill.

- from Food Fight, Dan Imhoff (pg. 29)

Happening now, and every 5-ish years, the Authorization process commits money to each title as either mandatory (must be funded) or discretionary (might be funded), but hold your horses, nothing appears to be sacred in the U.S. Congress. Imhoff reports the only untouchable spending category is commodity price supports. (U.S. major commodities: wheat, corn, sorghum, barley, oats, cotton, rice, soybeans/other oilseeds, certain pulses, peanuts, sugar, honey, wool, and mohair.)

- photo by Diane Choplin

So, while moneys are allocated during the Authorization process (phase one) their fate really depends on the ANNUAL Appropriations process (phase two), undertaken by the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittees of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees. (pg. 32)

Bless their hearts…if any title hopes to see promised funds, supporters must return each year and Food Fight once again.

- photo by Christine Krieg

Dear Food Partiers! We are reading Food Fight by Dan Imhoff, a guide to the next Farm Bill. This is the second posting. Please get the book and read along with us. Follow the discussion (and contribute) here:

1. Farm Bill. Not Sexy. Really Matters

2. Free Market Farm Bill or Farce?

What is it worth to you?


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