Posted March 17, 2005: The highlight was
probably standing on the subway platform at Metro Center at
11:00 PM, singing a call-and-response version of "Mad
Cow," the winning song from the talent show at the 2004
Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference. Shaking hands with
Rep. Dennis Kucinich wasn't bad either.
Last week, a group of 14 organic and sustainable farmers
from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Ohio invited me to tag
along as they ascended Capitol Hill to speak out for U.S.
farm policy reform. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance
to gain a better understanding of how federal farm policy
directly impacts the ability of conventional farmers across
the U.S. to convert to organic methods—or even to maintain
the traditional stewardship methods practiced by their fathers
The three-day fly-in agenda was orchestrated by the Minneapolis
office of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) and included
more than 30 meetings with members of Congress or their aides,
including the offices of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), Sen.
Barack Obama (D-IL), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), and Rep.
Gil Gutknecht (R-MN). Meetings targeted representatives from
the farmers' home states as well as members of key Congressional
committees such as the Senate and House Agriculture Committees
and Budget Committees.
|It was my first time visiting Congressional
offices, but most of the farmers who came on the trip
were already seasoned political activists.
It was my first time visiting Congressional offices, but
most of the farmers who came on the trip were already seasoned
political activists. A number of them sit on LSP's Federal
Farm Policy Committee meeting several times a year to connect
what's going on in their rural communities to active and proposed
federal legislation. Some were involved in the formation of
the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (the first
of the SAWGs, founded in 1988) and its D.C.-based sister organization,
the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (SAC).
Other members of the group participated in a similar fly-in
organized by LSP in 1999 to advocate conservation provisions
and other reforms for the 2002 Farm Bill. The Conservation
Security Program (CSP) was one of the outcomes of their and
others' efforts to guide federal ag programs toward rewarding
farmers for good environmental stewardship, rather than for
producing commodity surpluses.
Among the group's top priorities for this trip were to argue
for reduced per-farmer federal agricultural payment limits
and the continuation of CSP. The trip was initially intended
to focus on early discussions for the 2007 Farm Bill, but
as it turned out the farmers also had the opportunity to make
last-minute appeals regarding proposed cuts in ag appropriations
within the 2006 federal budget.
As most readers of The New Farm probably know, President
Bush's proposed 2006 budget, released a few weeks ago, included
a reduction in the per-farmer annual federal agricultural
payment limit from its current level of $360,000 (often breached
in practice) to a 'firm' $250,000. Despite the urgent need
to trim spending in the face of massive federal budget deficits,
the reduction is strongly opposed by the American Farm Bureau
Federation, major commodity groups and the Senate and House
delegations from rice and cotton states.
"The President is proposing
a $250,000 cap on subsidy payments. We think it should
be $50,000," explained Iowa organic farmer Greg
Koether. In farmer meetings LSP held across Minnesota
this winter, not a single farmer argued in favor of
a cap higher than $50,000--and some contended it should
be lower still.
There is widespread concern within the sustainable ag community
that cuts will be made instead to conservation programs like
CSP, which although authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill has yet
to receive full funding. The LSP group was seeking to move
the goalposts in the subsidy-reduction debate, arguing that
substantial savings could be had by correcting a system in
which just 10 percent of farmers receive 68 percent of USDA
"The President is proposing a $250,000 cap on subsidy
payments. We think it should be $50,000," explained Iowa
organic farmer Greg Koether, who was accompanied on the trip
by his teenaged daughter Kayla. Mark Schultz, LSP's policy
and organizing program director, agreed, noting that in farmer
meetings LSP had held across Minnesota this winter, not a
single farmer had argued in favor of a cap higher than $50,000,
and some had contended it should be lower still.
Some of the congressional members with whom the farmers met
were sympathetic to this argument. Darin Schroeder, an aide
to Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI), pointed out that fewer than half
a dozen farmers in Wisconsin would be affected by a $250,000
cap. Others were less receptive. "Representative LaHood
[R-IL] basically said, 'We care about conservation, but we're
not tinkering with the Farm Bill!'" reported Paul Gebhart,
who farms organically in Illinois and is chair of the board
of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.
"It's really discouraging to see the effects of government
programs encouraging a shift to growing commodity crops exclusively,"
said Dan Specht, another organic farmer from Iowa. "I
have 500 feet of elevation on my farm—you just can't
put land like that into continuous row crops." (Click
here for more on Dan Specht and his farm.)
|While NRCS has been strongly supportive
of no-till—a conservation strategy practiced by
many conventional farmers—the use of crop rotations,
which are central to the management strategies of organic
farmers, are not among the official 'conservation practices'
recognized by NRCS.
Jeff Klinge, a near neighbor of Specht's, sought to explain
to the lawmakers how even some federal programs intended to
protect soil resources were misused. He described how a farm
near his had been carefully managed for decades by a farmer
who kept his most erodible lands in grass and received little
in the way of federal payments. That farmer was recently bought
out by a larger farmer, who promptly applied for and received
an NRCS cost-share to install terraces and crop the land,
resulting in serious soil loss. "Terracing is not enough,"
Klinge emphasized. "You can achieve better erosion control
through crop rotations." (Click
here for more on Jeff Klinge and his farm.)
Similarly, he went on, while NRCS has been strongly supportive
of no-till—a conservation strategy practiced by many
conventional farmers—the use of diverse, resource-conserving
crop rotations, which are central to the fertility and pest
management strategies of organic farmers, are not among the
official 'conservation practices' recognized by NRCS.
In addition, the group argued that the whole farm support
system should be simplified, that programs to help beginning
farmers and ranchers should be strengthened and that payments
from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) should
not be permitted to fund manure storage systems for large-scale
animal confinement operations.
Farmers joining forces with environmental
groups, fiscal conservatives
With record-breaking budget deficits and Republican majorities
in both houses, prospects for progressive federal agricultural
policies might seem to be slim. But there are also some unusual
opportunities out there. Rep. Steve King, a second-term Republican
from western Iowa, for instance, reportedly expressed interest
in trying to develop a program to help beginning farmers get
access to acreage scheduled to come out of the Conservation
Reserve Program over the next few years. Many hundreds of
acres will be coming out of CRP in 2007, and it's an open
question what will be done next with that land.
Some counties in western Iowa have the highest allowable
percentage of land enrolled in CRP, noted Specht, so that
issue will be a big deal in King's district. "In a lot
of communities CRP resulted not just in land retirement but
in farmer retirement," noted Specht. "Traditionally,
grazing livestock on marginal land was where a lot of young
farmers got started."
||Perhaps the most significant positive
development since their 1999 Hill visit, the farmers agreed,
is the fact that powerful environmental groups have gotten
seriously involved in agriculture issues. Frank Casey
of Defenders of Wildlife said, "The more people we
have out there farming and ranching, the better it is
Perhaps the most significant positive development since their
1999 Hill visit, the farmers agreed, is the fact that powerful
environmental groups have gotten seriously involved in agriculture
issues. The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is itself a
member of a group known as the Conservation Coalition, which
meets monthly at the office of Defenders of Wildlife to coordinate
work to promote sustainable farming and ranching and limit
the damaging environmental effects of agribusiness operations.
A number of environmental groups first got involved in farm
policy during the run-up to the 2002 Farm Bill, and have kept
at least a few staff people working on those issues ever since.
Big ag groups try to promote actual or potential conflicts
between farmers and environmentalists, said Specht. But environmentalists
are increasingly interested in hearing from organic and sustainable
farmers. Frank Casey, director of Defenders of Wildlife's
Conservation Economics Program, told members of the group
that their view was, "The more people we have out there
farming and ranching, the better it is for wildlife."
The group said they were also pleased with the positive reception
they received from Congressional members representing more
urban and suburban constituencies. "I'm hearing a lot
more support from consumers and consumer groups," said
Gebhart. "Judy Biggert [R-IL] shops at Whole Foods."
Nevertheless, the visit underscored the need to engage a
wider segment of the U.S. population with the intricacies
of federal farm policy. "You've got to get more people
interested in this Farm Bill than have ever been interested
before," said Mark Halverson of Senator Harkin's office
during a meeting with the Midwestern farmers. "It's critical
that we sustain the progress made in 2002, and not have to
fight those battles again."
Also on the trip were farmers Audrey
Arner and Richard Handeen of Montevideo, Minn., Dan French
of Dodge Center, Minn., LouAnne Kling of Granite Falls, Minn.,
Paul Sobocinksi of Wabasso, Minn., Dave Serfling of Preston,
Minn., Joe Logan of Kinsman, Ohio, Jeff Longfellow of Bedford,
Iowa; Ohio State University graduate student Kristin Mack;
and LSP organizer Adam Warthesen. The farmers raise a wide
variety of crops and livestock, including organic corn, soybeans,
barley, flax, pigs, cattle, and chickens.