28 September 2011

Five Questions for Earl Blumenauer

Next year, the Farm Bill will be debated and renewed. Passed every 5ish years, the Farm Bill allocates federal spending in the billions of dollars annually. (You can read more about the history of the Farm Bill here.) The legislation is so massive it touches every corner of agriculture from planting seeds to purchasing groceries. Despite the bill’s long reach, it has only been in recent years – thanks largely to the work of Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle and Eric Schlosser – that people outside of farming have begun paying attention.

With interest in omnibus legislation at an all time high, well this legislation anyway, we were fortunate enough to be able to ask Congressman Earl Blumenauer (Oregon’s 3rd District) about the Farm Bill and its impact on local farmers, ranchers, growers and Market goers. A big thank you to the Congressman and his office staff for taking time to answer questions about an issue we are passionate about at the Market. 

Congressman Blumenauer speaking at our 20th Birthday earlier this year. Layering clothes like a good Portlander. 

1) Without getting all wonky about it, could you explain what the “Farm Bill” is? (Is it one piece of legislation, its cost, how often is it renewed, etc.).

The Farm Bill is a massive comprehensive bill that dictates federal food and agricultural policy. It is arguably the single biggest piece of legislation affecting land use in the United States. Passed approximately every five years by the US Congress, the most recent version of the Farm Bill (The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008) cost $288 billion. The Farm Bill sets policy for everything from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as “food stamps”) to crop insurance, conservation, and rural development programs.

2) Michael Pollan feels we should call this legislation the Food Bill. More cynically, I think it should be called the “Crop Subsidy Omnibus”. Arguably the Farm Bill has little to do with strengthening the occupation of farming (A vocation the Census no longer tracks). What changes are you proposing to put the Farmer back in the Farm Bill?

Farmers, in my experience, don’t want big government handouts. Like the rest of us, they want to be able to do their job, provide for their families, and protect their quality of life. The federal government can help provide a safety net that cushions the inevitable insecurity of agricultural production, but its most important role should be in supporting research, marketing assistance and small loans to ensure that farmers have the access to capital they need. With these smaller, targeted investments, the Farm Bill can provide small farmers the support they need, while ensuring that the playing field is level and that the federal government isn’t wasting money on large agribusiness that do not need subsidies.

Title I Commodity payments in the Farm Bill are not applied equally to all states or all farmers: 62% of farmers receive no subsidy payments at all and ten states receive more than 50% of the subsidy payments.  In addition, 74 % of payments go to 10 % of farmers – comprised almost exclusively of enormous agribusinesses.

Earlier this year I offered an amendment to the Fiscal 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Bill capping commodity payments at $125,000 per entity. While the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 limited the amount of direct payments an agricultural entity can receive to $40,000 annually, and limited counter cyclical payments to $65,000 annually, there are no limits on market loan payments, loan deficiency payments and commodity certificates.

I have also led efforts to boost specialty crop funding for fruits, nuts, and vegetables and protect conservation, research, and [protect] nutrition programs from devastating cuts.

3) Two part question: (A) Agriculture, as practiced, can be anything between a slash and burn enterprise to what Wendell Berry calls “Stewardship of the land”. How can the Farm Bill help build a sustainable, ecological and an environmentally strong economy? (Part B) Are farmers part of our future green workforce?

Farmers are facing new and increasing pressures from budget deficits, trade rules, urban sprawl, climate change, rising energy costs and shrinking water resources. The 2012 Farm Bill reauthorization is an opportunity to craft policies that present a new way forward for agriculture. Reliable funding for research, conservation, and programs such as “Farm to School” will help farmers and rancher adapt to a changes in the global economy and environment. The Farm Bill can help—by not forcing farmers to grow just six commodity crops and ensuring that multi-crop farmers receive the same support and insurance that commodity growers do.

Farmers are absolutely part of our green workforce. What we eat has almost as much of an impact on our carbon footprint as what we drive or where we choose to live. Without a reliable source of locally grown fresh foods, Americans have fewer choices and buy heavily processed, more expensive, less healthy foods.

In addition, agricultural production is playing an intriguing role as we work to develop answers to new questions. A great example is found in the initiative to develop sustainable aviation fuels. Industry leaders Boeing and Alaska Airlines are initiating the nation’s first regional stakeholder effort to explore the opportunities and challenges surrounding the production of sustainable aviation fuels. More than 40 organizations representing aviation, biofuels production, environmental advocacy, agriculture, government agencies, and academic research are assessing all phases of biomass production and harvest, refining, transport infrastructure and use; and prioritizing state and federal policy recommendations needed to spur the creation of sustainable fuels for aviation.

4) Historically, the Farm Bill has also allocated funds for food safety. How can this legislation promote safe and healthy food without burdensome regulations for the small grower, farmer or rancher? 

The majority of federal food safety programs are funded through annual appropriations rather than the Farm Bill. For example, the Food Safety Modernization Act, which passed Congress in 2009 and mandates tougher standards on food processors, food importers and foreign suppliers, is funded through the Agriculture Appropriations bill. I supported the Act and overwhelmingly opposed efforts in the House to cut implementation funding earlier this year. I also met with small farmers from my District to understand their concerns about additional regulations and worked with the bill’s sponsors to make sure these issues were addressed in the final legislation.

Severe underfunding at the FDA means that the federal government has been missing in action when it comes to protecting consumers from tainted food. We can and must do better. While these food safety regulations are necessary for the health of the American public, the focus should be on the outcome, not the process. If farmers and producers are meeting the safety requirements, the federal government shouldn’t force them to do so in a particular manner. In addition, for farmers and producers of a certain size, the federal government should provide financial support to make sure that the requirements are not too burdensome.

5) We should all be thankful that our food supply is not dependent on my less than green thumb. Even if I am unable to grow a single tomato, the Farm Bill is important to how I am able to shop and prepare food. Are there any proposed changes in the 2012 Farm Bill that will help Farmers Markets – both the farmers who sell and the access for people to shop at them?  

The explosion in the number of farmers markets in Oregon, let alone in the US, is staggering. The increased demand for fresh fruits and vegetables cuts across all income levels and age brackets.

There are several programs in the Farm Bill that encourage and expand consumer access to farmers’ markets. The 2008 bill continued funding for the Farmers’ Market and Community Food Promotion programs, and created the Healthy Food Enterprise Development Center, a program that will increase underserved communities’ access to locally grown and produced agricultural products. In addition the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program was extended to provide fresh, locally grown produce to low-income seniors and enable participants in the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program to obtain fresh produce from farmers’ markets. The challenging budget circumstances in Washington DC mean that we must fight to hold the line on these programs in the 2012 reauthorization and make sure they are not a target for drastic cuts.

L to R: PFM’s Board President Dick Benner, PFMs Director Trudy Toliver, Commissioner Nick Fish, Congressman Blumenauer & Mayor Adams celebrating PFM’s rainy 20th