Mark Ritchie, a long-time friend and colleague of mine, has attacked the
farm bill, but really he is attacking the overall direction of "de-coupled"
agricultural policy. "Freedom to Farm," GATT/WTO, etc. leave commodity
farmers at the mercy of large companies who control the so-called "free
market." Mark has attacked these trends in ag policy in the form of an
attack on the farm bill because the farm bill was just passed.
Unfortunately, however, progressive options for the direction of
agriculture were not on the table during this farm bill debate. The debate
over commodity programs was between two approaches: the decoupled "freedom
to farm" approach and wittling down old programs. The Campaign for
Sustainable Agriculture raised issues of equity, farm income, and the
structure of agriculture, but those issues received little hearing on the
Hill. Environmental issues, on the other hand, did get further in the farm
bill than we expected, and our successes were due to an enormous amount of
work from a wide range of organizations. Hence the following rebuttal of
Mark Ritchie's analysis.
Nevertheless, we still need a real debate about farm policy with respect to
who farms, who owns land, who controls the processing and marketing system,
and what these matters of ownership and control have to do with food
quality, food security, biodiversity, rural communities, and the land.
Response to Mark Ritchie: the farm bill and the environment
The SANET posting by Mark Ritchie calling the Farm Bill an "environmental
disaster" is wrong.
We (Hal Hamilton and Chuck Hassebrook) agree that the basic commodity
program features of the Farm Bill will have adverse impacts on family-size
farms. They deserve our condemnation. The Campaign for Sustainable
Agriculture, which we co-chaired, consistently criticized the destruction
of agricultural commodity programs in "freedom to farm."
But on the conservation front, the new Farm Bill represents real gains.
Remarkably, It is the one area in which environmental forces have been able
to make gains in this Congress. The Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture
brought an historically unique array of grassroots involvement, media
savvy, and cooperation among Washington groups to bear on these programs.
It is important that we celebrate our gains even as we realistically note
the damage done to farm programs.
In addition to passing good environmental legislation, the Campaign
stimulated formation of a "sustainable agriculture working group" within
the USDA. Relationships between Campaign and USDA personnel will help in
the inevitably contentious struggles to come over implementation and future
appropriations. Key gains in the farm bill include:
* A $2 - $3 billion increase in the fiscal commitment to agricultural
conservation programs through new mandatory spending authorities that are
not dependent on annual appropriations.
* Full extension of the Conservation Reserve Program at 36.4 million acres
and targeting of the program to the most critical acres. CRP had been
scheduled to expire.
* A new Conservation Farm Option will allow innovative use of conservation
programs to support whole farm approaches, such as use of CRP for
* Consolidation of existing conservation programs into a new Environmental
Quality Incentives Program with mandatory spending authority of $200
million annually, more than double current funding levels.
* Elimination of commodity program penalties on low chemical input
sustainable crop rotations.
* A voice for farmers and nonprofits on State Conservation Technical
Committees, which guide state level implementation of conservation
* Creation of a $300 million Fund for Rural America (mandatory spending
authority), that presents a big opportunity to increase support for
sustainable agriculture research and value-added marketing by sustainable
* A new Farmland Protection Program, which establishes $35 million of
mandatory spending authority for purchase of easements to protect farmland
from conversion to nonfarm uses.
* Creation of the Community Food Security Initiative to enhance food
security by linking producers and low income consumers.
Damage to Conservation Compliance and Swampbuster was significant, but far
less than it might have been. The Farm Bill gives USDA some discretion to
weaken enforcement. On the other hand, if it is handled by the
Administration as it has promised, it will result in no reduction in the
effectiveness of these requirements relative to current practices. Whatever
the ultimate outcome, these losses are more than offset by the
Several specific criticisms beg for rebuttal and a statement of the facts.
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) - Without this Farm Bill, CRP would fade
away because USDA would have no authority to ever again enroll new acres.
In the current fiscal climate, it was a major accomplishment to authorize
new enrollments and to authorize CRP to remain at its current size of 36.4
million acres. That represents a $1.5 billion addition to the baseline
budget for conservation.
The charge that unlimited haying and grazing will be allowed on CRP acres
is false. The Farm Bill makes no change in haying and grazing rules on CRP.
The charge that allowing early-outs from the CRP will bring more highly
erodible land into production, misses the point. The early-out provision is
limited to the least environmentally valuable enrollments in the CRP. One
of the problems with CRP is that it was never well targeted to the land
that really needs to be in the program. This provision enables the
Secretary to replace land that never needed to be in the CRP with
enrollments that do more for the environment, especially partial field
enrollments like filter strips. This will increase the environmental
benefits from CRP.
Set-asides - The argument that eliminating commodity program set-asides
(land idling requirements) will cause the clear cutting of windrows and
small stands of forest is not accurate. Forest land is not cropland and
thus was never eligible to be considered set-aside acres. Nor are CRP acres
in shelterbelts or windbreaks eligible for early-outs.
The commodity program set-aside never targeted environmentally sensitive
land. In some cases, the environmental impacts of set-aside acres were
negative. The set-aside program should not have been eliminated but rather
reformed to pay farmers to reduce production in environmental beneficial
It is debatable how much this bill really will result in reduced land
idling, relative to the old law. With prices at high levels, as they are
now, land would not have been idled under the old law either. With prices
at low levels, some analysis suggests that the provision under the new bill
allowing farmers to receive full payment without planting a crop would
fully offset the elimination of the set-aside requirement. The problem is,
just like under the old law, there will be no incentive to idle land in
ways the achieve environmental benefits.
Flexibility - It is charged that existing producers of specialty crops will
be hurt by the flexibility provisions, which allow producers of commodity
program crops to shift into other crops while continuing to receive a
One point of clarification is in order. There is no flexibility for program
crop producers to shift acres to production of fruits and vegetables,
unless they have historically grown or double cropped them. Producers of
those crops will not be threatened by increased competition.