There is a zip code in a built up area of Colorado’s Front Range that contains only a post office for renting out boxes. The last time I checked about 60 of those box-holders had over the past few years received more than $2 million in various farm subsidies delivered to those boxes.
I find myself wondering if their boxes contain miniature tractors and other farm implements that make those checks possible. But I guess they must own land somewhere that is enlisted in a USDA subsidy program or two.
I know of a few of those folks. They are not young. Their skin is tanned and leathered and goes well with their turquoise jewelry. Their rides are nice, too. Whenever I see one of them drive away, I wonder about our system of farm subsidies.
Most city people do not have a clue about the whole federal mechanism that is used to financially prop up the Ag economy. It is so vast that after the law and budgets that go directly to food safety, this whole financing structure for agriculture is probably the next most important thing for our farm-to-table system.
The “Farm Bill” re-loads this whole structure every four years. It was the last Farm Bill that sent catfish to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for continuous inspection, taking the job away from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Plenty of other food safety related examples could be cited.
That’s why I think it is worth pointing out one thing that happened this week that might be a sign that change is in the wind. The Senate’s 73-27 vote to end a $6 billion ethanol subsidy may turn out to be symbolic, but it was a dramatic, lopsided vote.
Maybe there will be less of an appetite for handling out federal tax dollars to people who don’t need them. That’s what Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-OR, is counting on with his amendment to cap farm subsidies at $125,000 per year. It’s fair to say that other than Mount Hood, the third district of Oregon containing east Portland does not really grow much, but Blumenauer is pushing against the larger, more corporate agricultural interests.
In another vote this week, the House voted 228-186 against another approach, which would have limited farm subsidies by not allowing them to go to anyone making more than $250,0000 a year.
So, change is not going to come easy.
Reviews of the last Farm Bill noted that it was so artfully drawn that the Ag economy was going to be able to hit the D.C. cash machine no matter what the state of the economy. It even pre-positioned money for disasters. The 2008 Farm Bill added up to $285 billion for “agriculture and farming interests.”
The first field hearings for the 2012 bill have already been held, in Michigan to please Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, the chairwoman of the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-OK, chairs the House Ag. Committee.
Months from now — after the two committees, their members and staffs, enough lobbyists to fill a fleet of Lincoln town cars, and a silo of USDA employees all get through with it — there will be a new Farm Bill with policy and funding that will have profound implications for every facet of Agriculture, including food safety.
We’ll just have to wait and see what all of those are, and keep checking those post office boxes.
P.S. You can check on farm subsidies in your area by using the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database.