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Gearing Up for the 2012 Farm Bill Debate

Daniel Imhoff, a researcher, farmer, author of numerous articles and books, independent publisher, and speaker, recently gave a presentation at the University of Washington about the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill. The March 1 event, sponsored by Northwest Farm Bill Action Group and the University of Washington’s Department of Urban Planning and Design in the College of Built Environments, drew a large crowd of students, faculty, and advocates working to reform the U.S. food system.

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Concentrating his career for nearly 20 years on issues related to farming, the environment, and design, Imhoff devoted the evening to a conversation about the Farm Bill, an extremely important piece of legislation that is passed every 5 to 7 years and affects many, yet is understood by few. 

The evening began with an introductory speech by Branden Born, assistant professor within the College of Built Environments at the UW. In his opening remarks, he told an eager audience that the current food system that exists in the U.S. is “far from perfect.” 

It is one that has created issues that, as Born put it, “span the micro to the macro.” It has contributed to a nationwide obesity epidemic, it has made food artificially cheap, it has created food deserts in low-income areas around the country, and it has caused significant environmental degradation to both land and water. Born urged that the question we must all ask ourselves is, “how has this happened?”

In his talk, Imhoff explained that many of the changes in our food system are largely the result of the policies that stem from the Farm Bill. Unfortunately, not many people fully comprehend the complexities of the measure and its widespread impact on the food system, both domestically and globally. Because of the mystery surrounding the legislation, Imhoff “wanted to build a literacy of awareness around the bill.”

Imhoff lives on a homestead in Northern California and he acknowledged that his main motivation in life is food production. It is what informs his opinion about food and farm policy, it spurs his enthusiasm for teaching others about the Farm Bill, and it drives his eagerness to participate in the ongoing debate. Although he does not describe himself as an expert, Imhoff does label himself as a “communications hitman and a translator.” Accordingly, he provided his listeners with a lesson in Farm Bill basics. 

Passed in 1933, the Agricultural Adjustment Act is considered to be the earliest incarnation of the Farm Bill. This omnibus legislation was passed during the Great Depression at a time when unemployment was at 25 percent, powerful dust storms were blowing away topsoil, and the country as a whole was facing extreme challenges. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew that the nation needed a “revolutionary effort to rescue agriculture.” He believed that it was necessary for the government to get involved in order to protect the farm economy. 

The aim of that legislation was fourfold, Imhoff described. Firstly, it attempted to control the acreage of crops in agricultural production and to control the prices of more than 100 crops. Secondly, the legislation set price floors in order to guarantee that farmers would receive certain prices for the crops they produced. Thirdly, it provided a system of credit and loans for farmers. Lastly, it addressed the issue of national hunger that had exploded due to the high rates of unemployment. In an attempt to meet the nation’s nutrition needs, the government purchased surplus food and distributed it to hungry citizens.

Although originally passed as Depression era legislation, the Farm Bill has persisted throughout the decades. In examining the history of the bill over the past several decades, Imhoff pointed out several additions such as the introduction of food stamps, the development of the “get big or get out” policies of the 1970s that persist to the present day, the creation of programs to aid farmers during the 1980s farm credit crisis, and the implementation of programs that reward farmers for environmental stewardship and energy conservation, to name a few.

Importantly, however, Imhoff reminded the audience that those changes and developments took many iterations to achieve. As such, it may take several more reauthorizations of the Farm Bill for advocates to see their reforms come to fruition. 

The reason for this, Imhoff explained, is that every few years when the Farm Bill is up for reauthorization, fierce negotiations take place between nutrition advocates who argue for greater hunger assistance and commodity producers fighting for commodity crop subsidies and price supports. Once those two major groups have received their funding, Imhoff contended that the other smaller interest groups would be left to “fight for the scraps.” This year, USDA as well as all government agencies and departments, are being asked to cut their budgets, making these negotiations even tougher. 

Yet, despite those realities, Imhoff told the audience he remains hopeful and believes there are encouraging possibilities for the next Farm Bill. Specifically, he pointed out that there has been an increased awareness not just of the food we put into our bodies, but where our food comes from, how it is produced, and the workers who are producing it. 

He added that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has made pronouncements about adding 100,000 farmers to the U.S. food production system. Bolstered by these statements, Imhoff thought of this as a good sign that Vilsack was seeking to create new jobs in a time of economic hardship and lingering rates of high unemployment. 

Ultimately, Imhoff stressed that developing the Farm Bill is a “great privilege and responsibility.” It is one that requires the participation and debate of advocacy groups and citizens on all ends of the spectrum. That, Imhoff proffered, “is the gift of democracy.”

© Food Safety News
  • “This omnibus legislation was passed during the Great Depression at a time when unemployment was at 25 percent, powerful dust storms were blowing away topsoil, and the country as a whole was facing extreme challenges. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew that the nation needed a ‘revolutionary effort to rescue agriculture.'”
    Correct. Absolutely correct. By default, all farming leading up to the 1930s was “organic” and there were lot’s and lot’s of small farmers, some more knowledgeable and accountable than others, each desperately farming the heck out of his/her alotted piece of ground. This spontaneous chaotic opening of the west to haphazard farming resulted in a legendary economic depression in agriculture and ultimately generated the spectacle of the dust bowl.
    http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_02.html
    The last generation to witness this is now passing, creating a cultural vacuum and perfect opportunity for some of us, naive know-it-alls that we are, to begin foisting convincing sophistry decrying FDR’s Agricultural Adjustment Act (and all that followed) as a collossal mistake. Some would even dismantle modern American agriculture and re-institute the harsh rural social conditions that existed leading up to the catastrophe of the great depression. This is, perhaps, the strongest indication that we have become entirely divorced from the realities of farm life.
    Need anecdotal or testimonial confirmation of progress in rural America, progress from ‘farm bill’ type legislation? For those of you who have elderly relatives or acquaintances who truly ‘grew up on a farm’ during the 30’s and 40’s, ask them about the excitement when the REA stopped around one day and threw a utility pole off in the front yard. Just one example of how farm life has improved since 1930.
    http://www.qconline.com/progress99/2rea.shtml
    http://ncpedia.org/agriculture/electricity
    http://www.ozarkelectric.com/rus.htm
    Sure, our agriculture is “far from perfect”. It is, however, a monumental improvement over what went before it. Turning back the clock is not the solution for food and farming that ‘perfesser’ Born and “communications hitman” Imhoff dream it would be.

  • Michael Bulger

    Oh my goodness, how glaringly inaccurate. Mudd, you’ve outdone yourself here with your unabashed and uneducated distortion of historical reality. What on Earth would lead you to believe that all agriculture prior to the 1930s was by default organic?
    The Dust Bowl was caused in large part by dry weather, deep-plowing, failure to use crop rotations and the ensuing degradation of soil quality. Ironically, standard modern organic practices such as cover crops in place of synthetic fertilizers would have had a beneficial effect on the soil and possibly mediated the effects of agricultural expansion and intensification.
    Coincidentally, I am doing research on the history of the forerunners to the modern farm bill. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the library reading over USDA documents from the 1920s and 1930s. I can assure you that farming was not free of synthetics or “organic” by default. I am once again amazed that you spend so much of your energy making passionate comments so obviously not researched.

  • Excellent demonstration, Mike, that ‘organic’ is not an original thought, certainly not a new idea originating with you and your self-important playmates. ‘Organic’ has been kicking around since long before Jethro Tull rested his beasts of burden in the shade of a hedgerow to put pen to paper.
    Contrary to your brash assumption, crop rotations and cover crops were well known to farmers leading up to 1930. To your credit, deep plowing (or at least moldboard plowing) was commonplace, as it still is today with practitioners of your resurrected ‘organic philosophy’. [No-till and meaningful crop rotations have become a standard part of modern professional agriculture for the past couple of decades, by the way. Major progress in soil resources conservation, whether you care to acknowledge it, or not.]
    You mention degradation of soil quality, but predictably fail to remark the underlying cause: shortage of manures and surplus organic matter (i.e. your salubrious ‘compost’) under large scale commercial application of your over-rated ‘organic’ methodology. In the fewest words; your antiquated dirt farmers didn’t keep enough livestock and didn’t fallow enough land. It isn’t because they didn’t ‘know better’, they simply didn’t ‘do better’. They mined out the soil. It could happen again.
    There is absolutely no justification to think any of you current-day ‘organic’ zealots are one whit smarter or more learned or more capable than your original counterparts of a century and more ago. Pure arrogance and folly for you to hint otherwise. A huge difference in practical experience between them and you, however; huge important difference, like 99% vs 1%…on your very, very finest day.
    Oh, well. I’m sure you’ll compose a most novel revisionist history of the events. Perhaps, if you toil imaginatively enough, you will surpass Imhoff’s proud mantle of “communications hitman” to aptly style yourself “history assassin”. You’re off to a pretty determined start down that path, already.

  • Michael Bulger

    I’m not sure if you think you make any sense. Are you suggesting that synthetic fertilizers were not in use during the Dust Bowl?
    By 1930, the USDA was reporting the industry was booming and the US purchasing hundreds of millions of tons annually. This would have been detrimental to the soil quality, destroying complexity and water-retention.
    As one study reported, this concept is not based in simplicity. Maybe that is where Mudd is having difficulties. (That and simple history.) What is astounding is the venom that Mudd is able to muster while being based so firmly in fantasy.

  • Doc Mudd

    Talk about “simple”; now you’re hypothesizing/hallucinating that excessive quantities of modern synthetic fertilizers were used in Nebraska & Oklahoma from 1890 through 1930, and that caused the dust bowl? But the catastrophe was reversed simultaneous with increasing quantities of fertilizer being utilized? Do you not perceive a ‘simple’ flaw in your hypothesis lurking somewhere in there??
    Primitive superphosphate production bumbled along around the turn of the last century and was pretty much displaced by bird quano leading up to the time of the dust bowl. No indication that much of it found its way into NB and OK, back in the day. Hell, the US was only just figuring out how to effectively produce nitrogen fertilizer during the 1930’s. Affordable commercial nitrogen fertilizer didn’t come into common use until after WWII. For the simple-minded among us, I will remind you that WWII took place in the 1940’s. Here are a couple of links to ‘simple’ sources that are written ‘simply’ so even the ‘simple’ among us might, with effort, understand:
    http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/crops_08.html
    http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe40s/crops_04.html
    I should think anyone who is schooling to write a credible history might at least first research and read some credible history, at least a children’s history. And I would be wrong, it seems; hell, just make up ridiculous crap as you go along and see if you can’t bluff your way through – that’s the zealot’s standard tactic.
    C’mon, it’s one thing to assassinate history, but no excuse to cruelly torture it to death.
    Awww kumbaya, campers, kumbaya dammit!!

  • Michael Bulger

    I never claimed that synthetic fertilizers were the main cause of the Dust Bowl, Mudd. I stated that the management processes of modern organics, coupled with abstaining from synthetic fertilizers (which were in use), would have been beneficial.
    By 1930, the Bureau of Chemistry and Soil had fixed nitrogen and was reporting the industry had tripled in size in 1929. Fertilizer plants were being enlarged and new ones constructed. The USDA reported a “distinct economy” of fertilizer-makers. Arsenic-based insecticides had been in use for decades. My original comment was that you were incorrect in stating that all agriculture of the time was organic by default. It is your own mania that has constructed this argument.
    I would in all seriousness recommend seeing a professional regarding your health, as your contributions to FSN are erratic, anti-social, and abusive. I’m going to do my best not to engage you any further, as I am not qualified in the field that might best serve you. I wish you luck, Mudd.

  • I guess I won’t be tapped to author the flyleaf review of your upcoming historical-fiction blockbuster, then?
    You could do worse but oh, boo hoo.

  • Michael Bulger

    Some will do anything for industry dollars. Even denying science and history…
    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Dennis_Avery

  • Michael

    I am not sure what will happen to the American Farm, however, it seems like the FFB, the Farm Credit System, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Agriculture has created a Farm Bubble. I would like resources on either side of the debate if you could list non-prejudiced websites I would appreciate it. Till I know what to do I will be waiting to short the Farm Sector.