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Column: Land Stewardship Project says farm bill not 'good farm policy'

By PAUL SOBOCINSKI, Land Stewardship Project

MINNEAPOLIS — The U.S. Senate voted this week 68-32 to pass the long-delayed 2014 Farm Bill. The vote followed action last week in the U.S. House, where the bill passed 251-166. President Barack Obama has pledged support for the bill and has now signed the legislation.

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The Land Stewardship Project (LSP) believes this bill does not measure up as good farm policy. While some encouraging elements are included, in its totality this legislation continues to perpetuate inequities in our food and agriculture systems and falls brutally short in providing for stewardship of the land and stewardship of our nation’s fiscal resources.

At a time when more is being demanded of our farming landscape, it’s unconscionable that $6.1 billion is cut from conservation funding by this legislation. This is the largest Congressional cut to conservation funding ever, and the first time we’ve witnessed a decrease in conservation funding since it became part of farm bills in 1985.

On the crop subsidy front, the bill ignores the will of the majority of Congress by failing to enact either meaningful limits to excessive crop insurance subsidies or commodity program payments. This is particularly egregious considering that such limits have been generally supported in both bodies of Congress in the past.

Crop insurance, already the largest farm-spending item in the bill, had its budget increased by an additional $5.7 billion to $89.8 billion over 10 years. And while some worthwhile changes were made to federally subsidized crop insurance in terms of conservation compliance and a limited sodsaver provision, it is unacceptable that agricultural policymakers would fail to put any limits on the amount of subsidies massive operators can extract from taxpayers through this program.

We do not accept the proposition that because the antiquated direct payment system has been discontinued, reform has been achieved. The 2014 Farm Bill’s new commodity programs and its expanded crop insurance system create a structure that does not adequately target payments or limit payment amounts producers can receive. This threatens to send the cost of these programs skyrocketing in the future. This is not reform — it is simply a new delivery system for making payments in a manner that is not accountable to or good for the public. Because of this, the new farm law will continue to be unfair in its distribution of resources and damaging to the long-term care of America’s farmland.

There were notable bright spots of sound public policy contained in this bill, including investments in programs for new farmers and a number of key initiatives that support local and regional food systems, organic production methods and rural development. Approximately $1.2 billion is being dedicated to these innovative growth areas of agriculture. However, it should be noted that this represents just 6 tenths of 1 percent of overall farm focused spending.

In what could be characterized as a defensive victory, the final bill also rejected attempts to repeal the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law as well as efforts to undermine fair competition rules in the livestock sector. These provisions are important and were hard-fought wins over the corporate meatpacking lobby in the final days of negotiations. It is important we guard against weakening them.

The Land Stewardship Project’s mission is to foster an ethic of stewardship for farmland, to promote sustainable agriculture and to develop sustainable communities. Farm policy is inextricably linked to how farmers approach their land and business, as well as how citizens spend their food dollars and what their tax money supports.

While this tiresome bill has passed, it would be disingenuous to say we moved the ball forward towards greater sustainability and stewardship. Indeed, some gains were made and we’ll apply ourselves to make sure those gains are realized, but greater reform and a new alignment of priorities is desperately needed.

“There is something wrong when a bill expands crop insurance with no limits, and then on the other hand, we cut conservation and nutrition resources. We’re allowing the largest operations in country to expand with the government checkbook — paying on average 60 percent of their crop insurance premiums for every acre, no matter how much ground they run or money they make. This is facilitating farmland being bid away from local family farmers and beginning farmers.

Paul Sobocinski is a Land Stewardship Project leader and a farmer from Redwood County.

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