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Senators Up In Arms Over Local Foods Funding

more vertical discsTalk about a waste of time on top of a waste of money. Three senators recently sent a letter to the USDA leadership to protest that a paltry $65 million from an agribusiness support fund of $307 billion (i.e., the 2008-2012 U.S. Farm Bill) went to groups trying to supply tax-paying customers the healthy, safe, nutritious food they demanded from local American farmers. Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), John McCain (R-AZ) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressing their “serious misgivings” regarding the new USDA initiative, “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” (KYF2). They charged that the program’s measures were “completely detached from the realities of production agriculture” and accused it of prioritizing locovore markets “at the expense of rural communities with documented rural development needs.”

According to the Des Moines Register, Secretary Vilsack responded, “I believe cultivating these new markets – not replacing old ones – is critical to revitalizing rural America by preserving wealth, increasing farm income, and reminding us all of the hard work and values that sustain those communities and our Nation.” He also attached 90 pages itemizing funding awards that the USDA has made.

Am I missing something here? According to the 2000 census, nearly 80% of the U.S. population (i.e., eaters) live in urban areas – wouldn’t it make sense to focus our resources there? Though farms may be located in rural areas, their markets are by and large where the people are – in cities. As Katherine Gustafson points out in her recent blog, the senators’ “use of the term ‘propping up,’ …suggests that these markets are not viable and would collapse without government help.” As if “production agriculture” is a function of a free market! To the contrary, government payments eat up a significant portion of our Farm Bill funds – over $12 billion in 2008 alone – in contrast to the meager $65 million released to the KYF2 program since its inception in 2009.

The major beneficiaries of government funding to date have not been farmers but big business and shareholders. Government payments that facilitate production below the market value help the company, not the producer. Is it any coincidence that agribusiness is one of Senator Chambliss’ top campaign contributors at nearly 2 million? As a taxpayer you are paying for the disposal of toxic feedlot waste and chicken manure, all in the name of “affordable” food. And this is not pocket change we are talking about – the most recent farm bill passed will cost the average American family $2,590.27. Will someone please explain to me how we can really “afford” to spend this money subsidizing companies who pollute our waterways, taint our food and destroy the agriculture upon which our country was founded? As Righteous Porkchop author Nicolette Hahn Niman said at our recent panel Green Pastures, Bright Future, our collective funds should be used to “incentivize the kind of agriculture we want” – reallocate the subsidies to support farmers doing the right thing and healthy food will be available to all. I think it’s about time for us to put our money on the food systems that actually benefit us – as eaters and farmers.

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