Thursday, October 24, 2013

D.C. and urban America are disconnected from the Farm Bill, which is more important than they know

David Rogers
"Farm Bill gets no respect," reads the Politico headline over a story by David Rogers, a veteran congressional reporter who is clearly taken aback at how an ever-urbanizing America fails to appreciate the importance of the legislation that guides production of its food, secures the nutrition of the poor and helps rural America keep up with the rest of the country.

"As quickly as the president mentioned the Farm Bill recently, Washington’s pundits dissed him for elevating something deemed unworthy," Rogers writes. "Maureen Dowd looked down her nose in Sunday’s New York Times. The scene at Fox News was almost comical. Brit Hume heaved one of his damning sighs. AP’s Julie Pace wrote off passing a farm bill as 'fairly easy' work. George Will said it’s all about welfare."

Rogers asks, "How did the nation’s capital become so disconnected from a farm and food debate that touches so much of America itself? A farm bill is about more than corn and cotton futures. Beyond the nation’s vast croplands, it impacts the federal forests and millions of acres of prairie lands held in conservation. It is perhaps the single most important piece of legislation that addresses rural economic development. Its trade and food aid titles are a reminder of how important America’s agricultural power can be overseas. Even the beleaguered honey bee has a stake in new research provisions."

From there, Rogers touches all the main bases: the fight over cuts in food stamps, ending direct payments to producers of commodity crops, new measures for organic and specialty crops, and limits on subsidies: "More of an effort is made to help only producers who have put seed in the ground, put themselves at risk and experienced a loss." Just how that loss is defined is up for debate in the conference committee that starts meeting next week.

Most importantly, perhaps, the hide-bound commodity lobbies are under pressure to show more flexibility themselves," Rogers writes, noting Farm Bureau's backing out of a deal to require conservation practices by people getting crop-insurance subsidies. "Fair or unfair, the disconnect surrounding the Farm Bill is real. And farm-bill advocates admit that new approaches are needed to expand their base of support in Congress." He notes, "
Just 34 House seats are judged more than 50 percent rural, according to Census numbers. Just 77 have a rural population of over 40 percent."

Rogers quotes Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: “There is a huge interest in all things food-related among the public at large, probably more so than at any time in recent memory. On those local-food and public-health issues, as well as on soil, water, and wildlife conservation, rural jobs and business development, and support for young and beginning farmers …support is strong. Today’s Washington establishment tends to look right past those concerns as somehow unworthy of serious attention. But, to be fair, what they see so often is hard fought and very arcane debates between commodity interests and regions of the country over how best to divvy up subsidies to grain and cotton farmers and dairy producers.”

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