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 and grandfathers.
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
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
"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 payments.
"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 Incentive Program (EQIP) should not be permitted to fund
manure storage systems for large-scale animal confinement operations.
Farmers joining forces with environmental groups,
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 for wildlife."
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
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.