Federal farm bills are the 400-pound gorilla of American agricultural policy, setting direction for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), if not the entirety of domestic farming. The last one was passed in 2008, and consisted of a $403 billion package covering, among other items, food stamps, biofuels, international trade, school lunches and rural energy efficiency.
“It’s very complex. It’s like wandering into the intestines of the worm; it’s like watching paint dry,” says David Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now! (FDN), an Iowa-based organization promoting progressive agricultural policy. “It’s one of the most important pieces of legislation — it connects the environment, land and the food we eat.”
FDN has called for increased government support of smaller-scale and organic farming in the 2012 farm bill. The organization proposes passing a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Bill to encourage development of smaller, local operations, putting in place a million new farmers by 2020. More sustainable, small-scale practices will be encouraged by coupling conservation compliance with receiving crop insurance and limiting government payouts up to 1,000 acres per farm. FDN also advocates allocation of some $25 billion to support a transition from traditional agriculture to organics, with a goal that 75 percent of farms be organic certified by 2025.
“Subsidies also come from the farm bill — it drives what farmers grow,” says Carol Carlson, chair of Slow Food Boulder, which provides education about the relationship among food, community and the environment.
According to the Congressional Research Service, U.S. farmers receive about $7 billion a year in subsidy payments from the farm bill, and 90 percent of this largesse is associated with corn, cotton, wheat, rice and soybeans. Ten percent of subsidy recipients get 66 percent of the money.
The abovementioned products are what are known as commodity crops, and make up the lion’s share of agricultural sales. Most of Boulder County’s agriculture is commodity farming, according to Michael Brownlee, co-founder of Transition Colorado, a supporter of local food systems.
“There are a number of larger-scale commodity crop farmers in Boulder County who receive subsidies,” Brownlee says. “On the other hand, small ‘specialty’ producers — small-plot, bio-intensive farmers often using organic production methods and primarily marketing directly to consumers — receive no subsidies at all.”
In terms of federal payments, $376,000 was paid out countywide, according to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture. A single farm, Bcjj Farms, based in Byers, received $384,754 in USDA commodity subsidies in 2010.
Boulder’s a poor cousin compared to neighboring Weld County, one of the top 10 richest agricultural locales in America. Large-scale agriculture operations, particularly those relating to cattle, contribute to Weld’s 2007 farm product sales figure of a staggering $1.5 billion dollars. Weld farmers also received some $15 million in federal payments. Total value of Boulder County farm products sold was $34 million. Thirteen farms reported income of more than a half million dollars, but average net farm income was a loss.
Boulder may be mostly commodity crops, Brownlee says, but “Weld County has a higher percentage of larger commodity crop farms, and few market farmers.”
Far removed from the world of commodity agribusiness, Jason Griffith owns and operates Aspen Moon Farm in Hygiene. His farm has been approved as biodynamic, a term trademarked by Demeter USA, a nonprofit that certifies farms. Biodynamic farming eschews chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, emphasizes treating soil homeopathically and encourages crop rotation and growing a complementary mix of species.
Griffith has been able to benefit from federal legislation through Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans. FSA financing and programs help farmers with down payments and equipment purchases. Griffith has used FSA loans for purchasing equipment.
This small-scale family assistance is consistent with President Abraham Lincoln’s initial vision for the USDA. In 1861, the Great Emancipator deemed agriculture “confessedly the largest interest of the nation.” Lincoln would also describe the USDA as “precisely the people’s department, in which they feel more directly concerned than in any other.”
“When Lincoln founded the USDA in 1862, farmers made up 50 percent of the nation,” Murphy says. “Now that number is 2 percent.”
But the percentage of farmers isn’t the only factor that changed since Lincoln’s time. The small-scale farmer isn’t the focus of federal farm policies anymore.
The 2008 legislation had a limited impact on organics, including development of an initiative to share organic certification costs with farmers, and the allocation of $78 million for research. The bill also provided an $80 million loan guarantee to a single company, Broomfield-based Range Fuels Inc., a now-defunct biofuels operation.
Organic and local food proponents argue that it may be time for a more aggressive legislative approach supporting local, small farmers and organics.
Murphy says he realizes his goals for the FDN are ambitious, but he says, “[You] never get what you want if you ask for what you think you can get.”
There’s fundamental rationale for understanding and changing the laws governing what we eat, Murphy says: “Food laws are a reflection of how democratic, fair, open and just a society is.”
Editor’s note: Clay Fong and David Murphy were college housemates.