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Deconstructing USDA Spin on the Farm Bill


Introduction

The new blog, “Why Should Young People Care About The Farm Bill?” from USDA’s “Office of Communications,” is a great teaching tool, as it can illustrate how our government supports mega corporate interests while disguising those impacts.

In saying this I don’t mean to necessarily assign malign purposes to the writers. What they’re portraying is a Farm Bill paradigm, the dominant paradigm, in

terms of a parallel paradigm of “good public relations.” At root, the blog is the view of the corporate status quo, and it’s presented as if it’s just a simple, nice public relations message, which it certainly is in many respects.

It’s addressed to people who don’t know much about the farm bill, however, to people who aren’t likely to be able to see it in the context of the alternative paradigm of social critics, such as “family farm” or “farm justice” activists, those who have been the primary opposition group to farm bill trends for nearly 60 years.

A good part of the blog identifies various interest groups, who have a stake in one part of the farm bill or another, including the public at large. There are many parts to the farm bill, and then everyone eats, so the message is clearly for everyone.

We next learn about the positive things that the farm bill does. Here note that there are no negatives, and there are no exploitative interests. Among the positives are: research on things that help people and the environment, programs that are critical for farmers, rural America and the nation as a whole (ie. exports,) and aid for the hungry both in the US and globally. Another special focus is on “stable food prices.”

WHAT WE DON’T FIND IN IT

Unfortunately, most Farm Bill research supports exploitative interests like big chemical companies against the interests of everyone else. The main programs

for farmers have, for decades, followed a model that was designed to run most farmers out of business, as it has, which has also been devastating to “local economies” across “rural America,” even as the United States as a whole lost money on “exports” for 25-30 years, just to subsidize multinational corporate special interests.

The main thing that has happened, and that will surely happen out of the current Farm Bill debate, is a model that has allowed farm prices to fall below previous “fair trade,” “living wage” standards, and then below full costs, year after year after year. Not only did farmers not receive fair prices, but diversified farmers also lost the “value-added” of livestock to corporate competitors who were massively subsidized by unwilling farmers, through the low cost feed ingredients that they bought from commodity farmers.

This in turn meant that farmers lost, and will continue to lose, the economic basis for Resource Conserving Crop Rotations, thus hurting all of those nice conservation goals. In part the changes were spun as increased “freedom to farm,” but on the ground they mean that farmers increasingly lost the livestock option. In turn, this mean that they lost the economic flexibility of crop rotations, making them increasingly dependent upon purchased fertilizers. With crop rotations, farmers have the option of powerful legume crops like alfalfa and clover, which can take more than 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre free from the air in sustainable forms, even as they provide feed for livestock enterprises.

These low prices and the resulting shrinking pool of farmers then hurts local food, organic farming and other niche enterprises. These operations get price premiums on top of basic price standards. As general market prices have fallen, so have the premium price levels (standard prices + premiums). Likewise, as our farming system has come crashing down due to general low prices, we’ve been rapidly losing the infrastructure that is important for local food. For example, we’ve been rapidly losing the local processing plants and sale barns that are needed for local meat sales.

Of course, in spite of all of this it’s still better to have a farm bill than not to have one. Increasingly I find that the mainstream media, the educated public, and especially the food movement, doesn’t understand this with regard to the biggest farmer part of the farm bill, the commodity programs. What’s not generally known is that the major commodity programs were ended in 1996. All that’s left are the subsidies that compensate commodity farmers for a small fraction (about 1⁄8,) of the market price reductions since 1953. What’s mistakenly believed is that commodity subsidies are a big injustice, with commodity farmers as the big beneficiaries. In truth, about all that subsidies have done is to reduce the reductions by about 1⁄8. That means that the value of commodity sales has been reduce by about 7⁄8 instead of by 8/8. We see, then, that the giving of subsidies has been an act of justice, not an injustice, albeit a small one.

THE LACK OF FOOD PRICE STABILITY

We’ve seen how the bottom side programs, (Price Floors and Set Asides,) were ended in 1996. This takes the situation back to what it was during the Great Depression, before there was a Farm Bill. During the Depression corn prices, for example, crashed to less than 10¢ per bushel.

On the other hand, on the top side of market prices, we also lost Price Ceilings and Reserve Supplies in 1996. These were programs to protect consumers, livestock feeders and other buyers from times of crop failure and shortage. Today there’s nothing in the Farm Bill or in current Senate and House proposals to prevent farm, and then food prices from skyrocketing above (the much needed,) “fair trade,” “living wage” standards.

WHAT WE REALLY NEEDED

Here, then, are some places where the Farm Bill has needed some major public relations assistance. First, a variety of crucial general public goals, US goals, rural goals and farmer goals are all at risk if people don’t pay attention to the farm bill, and build a movement that can take government back from exploitative and authoritarian corporate interests. Second, in misunderstanding the subsidy issue, commodity farmer interests have been separated from most other Farm Bill interests, in what has been a very successful divide and conquer strategy by mega agribusiness. Here we find that, in this inverted concept of farmer interests, (ie. where subsidies are seen as an injustice rather than as a very inadequate justice,) most of the mainstream media and most of the Food Movement has unknowingly sided with these corporate interests, directly against their own interests, working mostly against farmer victims while maintaining protections for their corporate exploiters.

Here, however, where they are most needed, USDA’s Office of Communications offers us nothing. Or rather, in glossing over the real issues of the Farm Bill, they maintain the status quo at the expense of everyone else.

A FINAL LESSON

One lesson here is that government documents about the farm bill, while useful for analysis by experts, should probably not be shared (ie. by real farm justice and food justice advocates,) with the general public. Almost always, I find, they contain hidden myths, hidden support for a status quo that is, at bottom, extremely narrow, harshly exploitative, academically mystifying and fundamentally authoritarian. These documents should not be linked on the web sites of today’s Farm and Food Movement.

FOR FURTHER READING

“Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack: Exactly Wrong on the Senate Farm Bill,” https://zcomm.org/zblogs/secretary-of-agriculture-vilsack-exactly-wrong-on-the-senate-farm-bill/

(link will be here soon)

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