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.
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.”