Tough Row to Hoe

California farmers will get more out of this Farm Bill than ever before—but that's not saying much

August 1-7, 2007

From the crest of a small incline at the edge of a field, verdant rows of radicchio, spinach, cilantro and kale line up, knitting the fertile earth with their tender roots. Beyond this field are groves of trees, and then more acres of farmland, which stop only at the edge of the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Here at Route 1 Farms, where due reverence is given to harmony and diversity, it is hard to imagine a life more peaceful or purposeful. But it is a life of service and dedication, and a hard life for many.

In his 26 years as a farmer, Jeff Larkey has scrimped, sweated and performed virtual magic to make Route 1’s finances work each year. He’s never received the kind of government assistance that, say, corn farmers in Iowa get; the Farm Bill, a $200 billion&–plus piece of legislation that lumbers through Congress every five years, has bypassed fruit and vegetable farmers like him each time while doling out billions to commodities growers. So Larkey’s managed on his own.

Self-sufficiency is an admirable trait, but over the years advocates of small family farms and “specialty crops”—bureaucratese for fruits and vegetables—have begun pushing for changes in the Farm Bill and the food system overall, arguing that the current system is unfair not just to small farmers or growers from California but to everyone who eats.

This year, for the first time, the change could start to happen. In the coming days, the House of Representatives will take up the 2007 Farm Bill, a version of which passed in committee last month. The $280 billion bill approved last week by the House includes a lot of big-ticket items, including the food stamp program, but tucked into it is a provision that never before existed: $1.6 billion worth of mandated government spending on the promotion, marketing, research and growing of fruits and vegetables over the next five years.

The bulk of farming subsidies—$40 billion in the version passed last week—goes to commodity growers who farm just five crops: corn, soy, wheat, rice and cotton, with corn being the largest. The effect these have on the environment and human health is serious and getting worse. In the aisles of the grocery chains, one finds that the majority of food offered is highly processed, preserved, high in fats, sugars and calories, and endowed with scant nutritive value—and most contains some form of commodity byproduct such as corn syrup. Ultimately, the people who end up eating the most of these government-subsidized commodity crop byproducts are children and the poor.

Ironically, while the USDA places a heavy emphasis on fruits and vegetables in the diet, and California produces over 50 percent of the nation’s specialty crops, the state’s growers have typically received less than 5 percent of all agricultural subsidies.

In response to a growing sense of crisis in public health and in farming, a number of advocacy groups—including the Community Alliance for Family Farmers (CAFF)—banded together under the umbrella of the California Coalition for Food and Farming (CCFF). The CCFF has been pressing for fundamental changes in the Farm Bill to address such concerns as conservation, support of local food movements, nutrition programs, organic farming support and subsidy reform. So far, progress looks mixed on the group’s ambitious agenda.

Kari Hamerschlag, a policy analyst for the CCFF, says that while this version of the Farm Bill is an improvement over previous iterations, any reports of victory are highly exaggerated.

“A lot of headlines are touting what a great thing this is for California, and it’s overstated,” she says. “Specialty crop groups and legislators are trying to paint this as a big win for California, but it’s just a drop in the bucket. If you look at the overall Farm Bill, where the bulk of it is going, we have $40 billion that is still going to commodity payments. And so when you put that in perspective, it’s still incredibly imbalanced.”

Hamerschlag rattles off some other disappointing outcomes: The CCFF asked for $25 million in mandatory funding each year to promote farmers markets; the committee mandated $5 million, with a bump to $10 million in a few years. The group wanted $60 million for a value-added producer grant program to help small farmers turn their peaches into peach jam, for example; the program got $20 million. The Organic Transition Program, which helps conventional growers make the move into organics, got no mandated funding at all; neither did the Community Food Project Grant Program, in which fresh foods are delivered door-to-door in low-income communities to improve nutrition and give small farmers a new market.

And the list goes on.

Many remain very disappointed by one aspect of the Farm Bill headed now for the Senate: its approach to conservation. Good ecological practices all require more labor and therefore a financial commitment that many farmers are not able to meet. Stewardship programs designed to compensate farmers for good practices have been written into the Farm Bill since 1985. But without mandatory funding, they’re susceptible to cuts each year.

Stewardship programs are not just underfunded; they’re oversubscribed. In 2004, three out of every four farmers and ranchers applying to participate in Farm Bill conservation programs were rejected due to lack of funds, according to the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

The demand is clearly there, so the current version of the Farm Bill retains conservation programs. But it shifts resources to big livestock farmers and away from specialty crop farmers.

Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm in Yolo County and president of the CAFF, sees something she likes in this Farm Bill, and it’s not what one might expect to hear from an organic farmer with sterling lefty credentials. She likes the fact that it relies on market forces.

“You could look at this as one step away from those traditional subsidies where the check goes directly to the farmer, and instead what they’re trying to do is encourage the public to perhaps eat more California fruits and vegetables using various mechanisms,” Redmond says. “The important programs in this $1.5 billion try to build the market for those crops, which is in some ways a much healthier way to support those fruit and vegetable farmers. It’s indirect, but it doesn’t make those farmers welfare recipients. Those farms have to sink or swim on the basis of their quality.”

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