As a kid, I enjoyed listening to the fruit frost warning reports on the radio. It was exciting to hear chilly forecasts for places on the faraway edge of the Los Angeles basin. If temperatures fell into the 20s, that meant the citrus growers would fire up smudge pots to guard their fruit against killing frost. As you can see, I had entirely too much time on my hands.
Seriously, however, it was good for a budding conservationist to be fascinated by farming and farm policy.
Smudge pots are long gone from citrus orchards. Today, instead of listening to the radio, growers are likely to be on the Internet tracking congressional debates on farm legislation. Every five years or so, Congress does a makeover on the menagerie of price support, trade, insurance, conservation, and nutrition programs known simply as the "farm bill." This year is one of those years.
For the average layperson who is only dimly aware of where food comes from, agricultural policy is a mysterious realm of opaque acronyms that don't hold much relevance for everyday life.
But the farm bill matters, for our pocketbooks and the environment. Farming leaves a sizable environmental footprint. Ag runoff is a significant reason why many rivers and lakes do not meet water quality standards. Agriculture accounts for about 7% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. And anyone who lives near a giant hog farm knows that ag can produce air pollution.Most farmers want to be careful stewards. The good news is that there are voluntary federal programs that help farmers take better care of soil, restore wetlands, protect water quality, and develop renewable energy projects. The bad news is that most farmers who want to participate in these programs are turned away for lack of funds.
That's because most of the money appropriated for farm policy goes for huge commodity crop subsidies. Of the $165 billion spent on farm programs between 1995 and 2005, more than three-fourths went to commodity crop subsidies. And more than 90% of those checks went to corn, wheat, rice, cotton, and soybean growers.
Half the commodity support went to 20 congressional districts represented by 12 Republicans and 8 Democrats. The gravy train chugs on both red and blue tracks.
The resulting inequities and market distortions bother would-be farm policy reformers across the spectrum. Conservatives don't like the high costs. Liberals object to corporate farms getting the lion's share of the cash. Anti-poverty activists argue that U.S. ag subsidies harm poor farmers in developing countries. Fruit and vegetable growers, who are not eligible for crop subsidies, want higher priority given to nutrition programs and market development for healthy foods.
This year seemed to be the year that farm policy would finally be fixed. The reformers banded together and have President Bush's support.
The House took the first crack at a bill this summer, but blew it by keeping the subsidy system largely intact. Nancy Pelosi had promised reform but decided that protecting freshman Democrats in commodity crop districts was more important.
Now, it's the Senate's turn. Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, a corn, soybean, and walnut farmer who sells carbon credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange, is pushing reform legislation to scale back subsidies and put more money into conservation, nutrition, and rural development. The iron triangle of commodity growers, congressmen, and bureaucrats is as powerful as ever. The odds are against Farmer Lugar. Wish him fair rains as he plants the seeds of reform.
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