By Russell Libby
MOFGA Executive Director
This is the year when the Farm Bill is supposed to move through Congress. As I write, the Senate Agriculture Committee has passed its version of the bill, and the House Agriculture Committee is drafting another to reflect its priorities. I’ll be heading to Washington in early May to testify before the Nutrition and Horticulture Subcommittee, emphasizing a few items that are important to MOFGA and to farmers across the country, such as support for organic agriculture and beginning farmers. Sometime during the year the two versions will be brought together, and we’ll have a Farm Bill.
But we have to be clear that the Farm Bill is not the same as a food policy that provides guidance and direction, that is inclusive of the many interests and perspectives that make up our food system. In reality, only some of those elements are even considered during the Farm Bill debates – and many of those are constrained by the weight of history. Federal farm policy is a delicate balance between the interests of the commodity producers around the country – the farmers who produce corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, rice and similar crops – and the reality that the package includes all the nutrition programs that are so badly needed by so many in this time of widespread poverty.
In this grand balancing act, which is really what national level politics are about, the interests of organic and sustainable farmers are barely visible. There are a few programs that we have worked hard to create and maintain – Organic Research and Extension Initiative, SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education), organic certification cost-share, conservation programs – but they are minor in terms of the total package.
That’s why we all need to be active on many levels. We need to work to change the Farm Bill, to make it better in whatever ways we are able. Your voices can make a difference there.
But we also have to keep building the alternative, to build a food policy as well as a Farm Bill. Our food policy starts with our own personal decisions, with the way that we work together in our communities and beyond. But we also need to keep articulating a vision that’s larger than commodity crops and crop insurance.
In May, representatives of farmers’ groups from around the country were gathering in Baltimore to start creating that larger vision. MOFGA is part of that conversation, as are our friends in the NOFAs (Northeast Organic Farming Associations), PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) and beyond. To have a food system that serves the interests of the broad public, that meets the needs of farmers and fishermen and all of you, we have to step outside the Farm Bill and be clear about what we can all do, working together.
If we’re successful, if we bring together the voices that are not being heard now, and if those voices are strong enough, we can make bigger changes in the Farm Bill in future years. And if we’re very successful, we will make many of the changes along the way, bring those who produce food closer to those who eat it, help put a new generation of farmers on the land.
In the end, the Farm Bill is just a piece of the big discussion. It’s important, but what you do every day on your farms and in your gardens, as you prepare meals with food you grew and from your neighbors, is important, too. That’s where we put ideas into practice, and that’s where the big changes are already happening.