The Common Good
January-February 2002

Down on the Farm

by Jodi Hochstedler, Bethany Spicher Schonberg | January-February 2002

Too often, farm bill dollars land in the wrong hands.

Seven blocks from the Sojourners office, in a gravel lot by the Metro station, the Columbia Heights farmers market is open for business. It’s a frosty morning near the end of the season, the shoppers are wearing parkas, and all the farmers have pumpkins for sale. At one stand advertising "fresh eggs from happy chickens," a woman hands a bag of apples to the farmer. He grins. "Throw in a squash and I’ll make it five bucks." She picks out a butternut and pays him with a five dollar coupon that he’ll trade in for cash at the end of the day.

A few miles away on Capitol Hill, the farm bill’s up for vote again. As usual, environmental, agriculture, and food security groups are lobbying furiously and corporate execs are striking deals in back rooms. The farm bill, revised every few years, ties together everything from commodity subsidies to wetland conservation to food stamps to export regulation. It allocates billions of dollars annually, occasionally to fund creative initiatives like the Farmers Market Nutrition Program—which guarantees profits for local farmers and provides fresh veggies to WIC moms in neighborhoods like Columbia Heights. More often, however, farm bill dollars end up in the wrong hands.

Food travels far before it hits our plates—1,300 miles, on average, in the global economy that grows, processes, transports, and markets what we eat. A handful of transnationals control the whole shebang, seed to table, and pocket the profits; in fact, 90 percent of the money in agriculture is in selling seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers to farmers and then processing the harvest. The likes of Cargill, ConAgra, and Phillip Morris depend on U.S. policy to play along by bailing out farmers, cleaning up the environment, feeding the hungry, and protecting markets at home and abroad. Meanwhile, whole populations are shut out of the game—the family farmers, the rural communities, the mom-and-pop storeowners, the inner cities, the 24,000 people worldwide who die of starvation every day.

"A hungry world is a dangerous place," writes Peter Mann of World Hunger Year. In the wake of Sept. 11, policies that pit an arrogant minority against the angry majority can’t work. In the interest of "homeland security," a farm bill that’s business as usual won’t fly. "The real threat to U.S. security," Mann continues, "is the inability to produce our own food, close to our homes."

How might farm bill drafters rewrite the rules of the fragile, far-flung economy? For starters, they could edit out the equations that base subsidies on production rather than need and force U.S. farmers to "get big or get out." While they’ve got their red pens, they might slash the supports that violate international trade agreements and make enemies abroad. In addition, policy-makers could revise antitrust legislation to address the bargaining power of corporations and investigate the contracting practices of agribusiness. A good proofreading just might pay for more proactive initiatives like the farmers market program, as well as research dollars to develop sustainable farming practices and alternative marketing methods, and conservation funds to reward stewardship of land and water.

But that’s only a good start. For truly progressive policy, legislators and lobbyists alike will have to leave Capitol Hill—to pull weeds with veggie growers who are trucking pumpkins to the cities, to pick up trash with neighborhood kids who are plowing vacant lots into community gardens, to walk the back 40 with grain farmers who are vowing to "get different" rather than big or out. And to listen in on grassroots conversations around the globe. Farmers and consumers are conspiring together in rural coffee shops, in city gardens, in Third World NGO offices, and at a farmers market near you—to connect oppressed eaters with marginalized growers and cut out the corporate shenanigans in between. In the days to come, policy that works will be policy that does just that.

Bethany Spicher is editorial assistant and Jodi Hochstedler is news/Internet assistant at Sojourners.

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