Can't Keep 'Em Down on the Farm Bill

by by Benson Tucker

illustration by by Katherine Entis

This Tuesday, students from ten mostly elite colleges and universities throughout the Midwest and northeast held protests against the latest farm bill, a massive piece of federal legislation passed every few years that funds a wide variety of food-related programs (from nutrition research to food stamps to farm subsidies) and sets food trade policies. Brown was among the universities involved; in a rally at Providence’s Burnside Park, concerned students and citizens objected to the subsidization of factory farms that drive out smaller, more sustainable farmers and make processed food artificially cheap.

Despite the wind and rain, there was a large turnout with good-natured call and response chants (“I don’t know but I’ve been told/ Grain subsidies are getting old”). Jonathan Leibovic B’12, one of the organizers of the Providence protest, described it as an effort to “call attention to this bill and its perversions, because it’s not a very well-known bill, even though it contains $288 billion worth of programs.” The timing of the protest coincides roughly with the beginning of hearings for public comment on the 2012 farm bill, and protesters are hoping that raising awareness and calling for more hearings will spur dramatic change. Leibovic added that despite limited reform in 2008, “agribusiness subsidies persist, and that’s why we’re protesting.”

A Brief History of the Farm Bill
The farm bill hasn’t always been this way. The modern farm bill—multiyear legislation supporting the price of crops and income of domestic farmers—came into being in 1965. It’s firmly rooted in Cold War concerns: its goal was to support a heroic, classically American way of life and make sure that our food supply would be produced domestically, keeping it safe from foreign threats. In the early years, that rhetoric largely lined up with what the policy really did. The 1970 farm bill capped payments to farmers on a per-crop, per-farmer basis, and dictated that unsold surplus was to be collected and distributed by the government. In this original system, overproduction and factory-style, single-crop farms didn’t pay, but small farmers producing a variety of crops at the level they expected to sell experienced a new level of security. As more Americans left farms for salaried jobs, this guaranteed income was supposed to bolster the security of rural life, right at the time when American cities faced the tumult of civil rights struggles.

The 1970s saw a change in federal policymakers’ approach to farms. Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, announced the new attitude in unambiguous terms, famously telling farmers to “get big or get out,” and advocating single-crop commodity farms over diverse farms appealing to local market demand. The transformation of the farm bill’s function—from protecting the classic American farm to supporting the modern factory farm—continued through the 1980s, following the transformation of American agriculture. In 1987, new rules were published specifying how the multiple financial entities that operate a farm should be counted as “persons” for payment purposes, indicating the American farm’s change from family enterprise to corporate operation.

In 1996, the Freedom to Farm Act, also known as the 1996 farm bill, instituted a system of direct payments intended to allow for a smooth transition away from the old system and into a free market future. The direct payments were to be a temporary measure that would continue to support agriculture without the market distortions of guaranteed prices. Neither the old system nor the ‘temporary’ program have truly come to a close. Today the ‘temporary’ payments alone send billions of dollars to factory farms.

What You Say Isn’t Always What You Get
Though the implications of the farm bill have changed drastically over the last 50 years, the rhetoric hasn’t. President George W. Bush, signing the 2002 farm bill, said: “American farm and ranch families embody some of the best values of our nation: hard work and risk-taking, love of the land and love of our country. Farming is the first industry of America — the industry that feeds us, the industry that clothes us, and the industry that increasingly provides more of our energy. The success of America’s farmers and ranchers is essential to the success of the American economy.” The farm bill has less than ever to do with the classic American farmer, but that farmer continues to be valorized in defense of agricultural subsidies. Bush’s celebration of the American farmer brings the classic figure into the 21st century by associating it with the hopes for a corn-fueled future. Indeed, the discussion of corn-based ethanol as an energy solution in the 2000s renewed the rhetoric tying farm subsidies and national security, as energy independence took up the place that food independence held in the Cold War.

But just because the administration has changed parties doesn’t mean it has changed talking points. Current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sounded a lot like Bush when he defended agricultural subsidies last month: “Those folks are good people, they populate rural communities and support good schools and serve important functions.... There’s a value system there. Service is important for rural folks. Country is important, patriotism is important.” The only point he added to signal his party affiliation was highlighting rural poverty: “In terms of abject poverty and significant poverty, there’s a lot of it in rural America.” For Vilsack, these were all reasons not to touch farm subsidies.

There’s a certain irony to this logic, both in the way it combines common tropes of political rhetoric and in the policies it produces. Though the contemporary farmer appears to receive subsidies because we valorize him, by receiving them he comes to resemble the welfare recipient, despite the normally different treatment these two groups get in political rhetoric. Some Democratic Representatives, such as Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer, have identified “the rather expensive support we provide to agriculture” as a place to cut the federal budget. However, the legislators defending agricultural subsidies, House Republicans on the Agriculture Committee, recently signed a letter to the chairman of the Budget Committee expressing their opposition to cuts to agricultural subsidies and advocating cuts to food stamp programs instead. The notion that the urban poor are victims of the market holds little ground with the Right, yet when it comes to rural folks, there seem to be billions of dollars available as protection from market fluctuations.

If the rhetoric of the farm bill accurately described the effects of the policy—that is, if the farm bill were really just funneling money to the classical American farmer—then swapping food stamps for farm subsidies would amount to little more than a preference for the rural poor over the urban poor. In fact, the rhetoric is more an ideological cover for the farm bill than an accurate description of it. From 2003 to 2005, the largest 1 percent of farms received 17 percent of the subsidy payments. In the last few decades, the farm bill has shown a preference not only for the rural over the urban, but also for the big over the small. Given the misleading rhetoric, this seems like a preference that today’s policymakers, savvier than Secretary Butz, don’t want to express publicly.

But bringing home the bacon is essentially what the public has come to expect from their Representatives, and that seems to be why the current system of agricultural subsidies has persisted so long. The 24 districts of the House Republicans on the Agriculture Committee receive over a billion dollars from the farm bill in direct payments alone, and they’d hate to see them go.

The Silver Lining
Fortunately, as recent protests indicate, voters are watching, and they’ve noticed that the oratory and the policy don’t line up. For years, New York Times editorials have decried the inequitable and wasteful spending in the farm bill. Environmentalists and ‘real food’ advocates like Michael Pollan have pointed out the consequences for ecological and human health. The United Nations Development Program has noted that first-world agricultural subsidies cost third-world countries tens of billions of dollars. In taking up these criticisms and questioning the official face of the farm bill, protesters are transforming the issue of agricultural policy from an instance of special interests overcoming the public good to a moment of resurgent democratic self-assertion.

Rhode Islanders getting off the bus in Kennedy Plaza talked to the protesters and made phone calls to Debbie Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to ask for subsidy reform and more public hearings. The protesters’ goals seemed to be just as much about making the legislative process fairer and more open to the public as it was about bringing fairness to the legislation itself. Explaining what brings college students from around the country into their communities, Leibovic said: “These students feel empowered in the political process, and therefore are likely to raise their voices when they see injustice.” Regardless of whether the protest itself did more than fill up a congresswoman’s voicemail inbox, that feeling of empowerment pervaded downtown Providence.

BEN TUCKER B’13 didn’t think he could ever feel comfortable holding a sign with “stop big ag” painted on it, but here we are.