Updates July 2007

Today, with 90 percent of Americans living in cities and suburbs and only two percent actively engaged in farming, news about the federal Farm Bill often goes in one ear and out the other. Unless they’re residents of stereotypical “farm states,” people may not notice much beyond the sheer size of the bill ($300 billion over five years). They may assume there’s not much in it for them personally or for their businesses and communities.
In one sense, the assumption is valid: about half of Farm Bill expenditures (some $30 billion per year) go to producers of a short list of commodities like corn and soybeans, and these recipients tend to be clustered in places like Iowa, the Dakotas, and other largely rural states. But the Farm Bill really does hit home for most of us. Think about school lunch programs, which for generations have served federally-subsidized foodstuffs. And of course there’s the food stamp program (now run with debit cards), which aids farmers and food retailers as well as low-income consumers.
There are, however, some significant pieces of the Farm Bill that should mean a great deal to people interested in preserving farmland and greenspace, saving energy and lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and invigorating regional economies – all the pluses of localism and sustainability. And this is why groups like the Northeast Organic Farming Association and  the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture are working feverishly to make sure the Farm Bill, which Congress is hammering together right now, will further progressive goals.
Some examples: Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has introduced a Farm Bill amendment that would provide assistance for farmers and ranchers transitioning to organic methods. This would be money very well spent, since organic agriculture puts more nutritious food on our tables at less environmental cost. (See recent studies about how organic farms consume less fossil fuel and produce lower greenhouse-gas emissions.) And legislators need to help organic farmers and ranchers by leveling the playing field – for example, by allocating a fair share of research dollars to organic growing methods and pest control.

Another proposed amendment, this one from Reps. Gillibrand and Steve Kagen (D-WI), would increase funding for the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program to $25 million per year. A competing provision put forward by House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) would initially provide just $5 million per year. Even the lower figure will do some good. But considering how these markets boost small farmers’ incomes, connecting shoppers with high-quality food, save vast quantities of fuel by shortening supply routes, and create durable rural-urban linkages that promote regional sustainability, surely $25 million annually is not excessive.

In a similar vein, there’s an opportunity now to boost federal support for Community Food Projects. Many communities across the US are grappling with diet-related problems like obesity, type-2 diabetes, and lack of consumer access to fresh, wholesome foods. This critical situation calls for nutrition education, support for local fresh fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias, and similar means. Such projects have had notable success. For example, in Massachusetts, the Community Food Projects initiative has in the past decade funded 18 projects statewide with grants up to $250,000; these projects have supported “innovative anti hunger and nutrition programs that link to local food production and marketing,” according to Mass activists. But the federal funds for this initiative have been pretty thinly spread - only $5 million per year nationwide. The funding may now increase to $30 million per year, but beware of complacency. What’s needed now, say activists, is to make this funding mandatory – that is, insulate it from the appropriation process, which carries no assurance that actual dollars will be disbursed.
You can see from these examples that the Farm Bill makes a difference to everyone. But what can a concerned citizen do? First, don’t assume all the power is in the hands of Big Agribusiness. Constituents can make things happen if they get engaged. But timing is crucial. Right now the Farm Bill is being “marked up,” subjected to retooling and rewriting, and though the process can seem endless, Congress is poised for action. You can start by contacting your own Congressional representatives; if you’re not sure where to start, try Project Vote Smart ( www.vote-smart.org ), where you can type in your home zip code and retrieve your reps’ names and links to their websites and contact information. You can also contact members of the House Committee on Agriculture, whose role is pivotal  ( http://agriculture.house.gov ).
Just as important, get involved with groups that work for a sound agriculture policy, regionally and nationwide – like the Northeast Organic Farming Association ( www.nofa.org ), as well as its state affiliates; and the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture ( www.sustainableagriculture.net ), which posts up-to-the-minute news you can use.

[Jack Bradigan Spula, a freelance writer and teacher based in Rochester, NY, works with the Northeast Organic Farming Association  on policy education. NOFA -  with chapters in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and  Rhode Island – promotes healthy food, organic farming practices, and a clean environment.]  Also check out: THE ROCHESTER DISSIDENT - news & views from Jack Bradigan Spula - Check out one of our area's top reporter and commentary's new blog.

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