What the Farm Bill could accomplish…


Kari Hamerschlag has a post up about the upcoming Farm Bill and its potential to move money away from large scale industrial agriculture and towards smaller producers. For most small farmers producing for local markets, the idea is heady – after all, the economics agriculture are tenuous for many of us – we get all of the burdens of regulation without any of the economies of scale that accompany large scale agriculture. Most small producers are driven, then, to serve communities that can pay, rather than necessarily their poorer rural neighbors (although all of us do some of that too). We then get accused of being elitist (as I’ve written about before), usually with the word “arugula” mentioned somewhere (I’ve never fully grasped why a perfectly nice green, fast growing, easy to grow plant like arugula is actually a code word for “rich asshole” – why not “mustard greens” or “kale?”)

The accusation that local food is elitist is actually a product of the industrial food infrastructure – that is, the requirements of an industrial food system, the presumption that the basic structure of food production should be industrialized is what makes the price of good food higher. The accusation that local food isn’t “serious” because it costs more is an accusation in bad faith – the reason it costs more is because the same system makes it cost more.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing in favor of farmers’ not getting a fair price for their food, but consider the cost of a gallon of milk. I can produce a gallon of milk from my barn for about $2.40 in hay, grain, amortized goat costs, and a tiny chunk of my mortgage payment. Since my milk is mostly grass during the summer, that means with a reasonable markup, I could produce a gallon of milk for 3.50, and make a fair profit. That’s not too bad – my local Stewarts is advertising milk for 3.80 per gallon, so I could sell a few gallons to my neighbors and offset some feed costs, without costing them more, maybe even save them some pennies. It goes without saying, also that my goat’s milk tastes better (sorry, but it does, and everyone thinks so), is organic, probably came from animals with better lives, and would be fresher than the milk in the store.

My friend Judy, who runs a dairy, observes that it costs $9 for her to produce a gallon of goat’s milk. Now why the difference? Why does it cost her $9, which isn’t even remotely competetive and me $2.40? Well the main difference is that she had to get set up to sell her goat’s milk. She had to put in a bulk tank, build a barn to specifications, put in the second septic system between the milk room and the barn septic, add restroom facilities (even though her house bathroom is three steps away), and pay 16,000 dollars for pasteurizer.

As I’m adding up my costs, I don’t have to count any of those things. I can amortize my steel milking pail and the quart mason jars I use, but that won’t add but pennies. I can pasteurize my milk – after all, raising milk to a particular temperature and holding it there for a couple of minutes isn’t rocket science, and a $4 dairy thermometer works fine, along with a stainless steel pot (let’s not even ask whether I can sell it raw).

Of course, the big difference is that Judy *can* legally sell her milk, and I can’t. In order to sell milk, I’d have to build the milking parlor, get the bulk tank, run power to the barn, and buy the 16K pasteurizer. Nevermind that for someone milking 6 does, this is ridiculous overkill – them’s the rules. And look, my organic milk now costs $9 gallon – and gee, isn’t that elitist, to think that ordinary people can afford organic *milk!?!*

Now I can hear the protests – after all, all this stuff exists in the name of progress and food safety, right? Well, the problem with that is that if you need all this stuff for milk to be produced safely, you have to first explain away the fact that the French are all still alive ;-). Because it is perfectly evident that it is possible for someone to hand milk six cows in a milking parlor without electricity or running water, in a building built 400 years ago and to the standards of that day, to take it from the cow and cool it in a bucket of water from a spring, and sell some of it directly to consumers who do not die, and indeed, go on to have lifespans longer than our own and who spend less per year on illness and health costs

So the idea of some of the many billions that the USDA throws around going to local producers as Hamerschlag suggests is pretty cool in some respects. That said, however, among the actual farmers I know, there’s a lot of ambivalence about subsidies and programs that actually work to our benefit – a lot of times the seeming generosity comes with some downsides like new levels of scrutiny and regulation that make it harder, not easier in the net. In many cases policies that seem to favor the small and local are actually more easily taken advantage of by the large and industrial.

That’s not an argument wholly against Hamerschlag, but it is a cautionary note – most small farmers I know would love to see the barriers and benefits shifted off an un-level playing field. They are less sure that they want to engaged the USDA’s full attention ;-).

Hamerschlag proposes the following:

Increasing support for local aggregation, processing and distribution so that farmers can more easily sell healthy food, including locally raised and processed meat, directly to schools, hospitals, stores and restaurants.

Enabling schools to use more of their federal food funding to buy fresh, local foods. Public schools could opt to use up to 15 percent of their school lunch commodity dollars for buying foods from local farmers and ranchers, instead of through the U.S.
Department of Agriculture’s nationalized commodity food program.

Improving the diets of food stamp recipients and low-income seniors by making it easier for them to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs, and other direct food marketing services, putting more money in the pockets of local farmers and generating additional economic activity in nearby business districts.

Diversifying and increasing the production of healthy and sustainable food by increasing funding for the Specialty Crop Block Grant program and increasing access to credit, crop insurance, and other support for organic producers, diversified operations, smaller-scale and beginning farmers.

All of these things could be good – particularly a program that upped the percentage of SNAP and WIC foods that could come from local resources (I’ve always thought that the elegant simplicity of Michael Pollan’s proposal that WIC and SNAP dollars should pay double at farmer’s markets worked to everyone’s advantage). Beginning farmer programs also are good. But I wonder if we’re coming at this from the correct end – what the Farm Bill and the USDA as a whole have done over the years is radiically re-shape the way Americans eat – ostensibly, of course, it was about agriculture, but really it has been at least as much about changing how we consume. Perhaps that’s the end of this we need to focus on.

As much as I’m in favor of working with schools to bring in local produce, what most farmers I know that have done so have found is that because schools are not set up to process produce themselves, what ends up happening is that our “local” food gets transported to a distant processing plant and then back to the school – establishing both the infrastructure to deal with crops closer to home and also giving schools the capacity to use foods in states nearer to their actual origin (you would not believe what a carrot has to go through to show up on a school system plate). One wonders if perhaps what’s needed most is to shift the expectations of school systems and school children so that they recognize the value of a carrot piece that isn’t encased in plastic, waffle shaped and three days old.

Supporting an increase in processing facilities that support small scale producers of all kinds could be of huge benefit – community kitchens that support small-scale producers, local slaughter infrastructure and when possible, local processing infrastructure for institutions like schools and hospitals – but the question becomes, if we smaller local producers have to specialize and narrow our focus in order to grow precisely the kinds of vegetables that run best through processing equipment so they can be bagged and shipped to school children, are we still doing what really matters – producing the diverse crops that grow best and meet our community needs?

I’m not opposed to any of these programs, and generally, I think anything that keeps small farmers in business or helps create new ones is good – but if the larger goal is for small farmers to be producing a larger chunk of our food, which I think it is, we have to look down the road towards that larger goal. It may be that what we need most are resources devoted to shifting the American diet to the kinds of foods that grow best around them. If there’s a place for the USDA, which after all, has helped shape America’s diet into one that is demonstrably bad for us, it might be there – in putting resources away from big ag, and towards eaters, as much as farmers, and towards helping people change their expectations about food. So much of what we do is focused on what farmers grow – but farmers respond to what eaters eat, and as I’ve argued before, farmers alone cannot transform their agriculture – it starts at the table.