Uncommon Ground

Farm Bill for Eaters

The Farm Bill helps growers decide what crops to plant

Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow from Michigan announced that the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry will begin public policy hearings on the next Farm Bill. Luckily for Montana, Sen. Max Baucus sits on this committee that encourages farms to produce good food.

Montana ranks fifth in the nation for producing wheat. Counties like Chouteau and Hill are the heart of the “Golden Triangle,” an area encompassed by Shelby, Havre and Great Falls. Seven counties produce nearly half of Montana’s wheat crop. It is one bumper crop still free of genetic engineering.

Montana wheat will hopefully retain its GE-free status. The bulk of the crop is shipped to places like Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and South Korea. But Montana’s whole wheat and pasta is also served locally, like at Whitefish schools. Whitefish also serves milk free of synthetic hormones like rBST.

The Farm Bill helps growers decide what crops to plant. It articulates policy and priorities for American agriculture. It is the policy behind what type of snacks and meals 30 million American students eat. It decides what foods will be cheap. But a good Farm Bill also articulates a plethora of policies for farming, food access and health.

Past Farm Bills allowed the top 10 percent of corporate farms to rake in three-quarters of all crop subsidies. Mega-farms, commodities traders, meat packers and processed food manufacturers send their powerhouse lobbyists to Congress.

Small growers do not qualify for crop insurance. With the changing climate, many small farmers are suddenly faced with devastating hail storms during the short growing season. The new growing reality of planting weather is changing frost zones and wild freeze-to-thaw cycles that can easily kill the crop.

The bulk of past Farm Bills was food stamps for 45 million low-income families that must trust the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP attracts many lawmakers who live outside food-producing regions to support the Bill. These lawmakers may further embrace better food infrastructure.

Foods the USDA recommends occupy most of our plate – nuts, fruits and vegetables – but get the least notice in past Farm Bills. Fortunately for eaters, Sen. Jon Tester is still an active farmer. Both Tester and Baucus are old farmhands when it comes to real food.

The number of farmers’ markets has ballooned to more than 7,000 nationwide. Millions of Americans are again buying food directly from farmers – in places like downtown Whitefish on Tuesdays, downtown Kalispell on Saturdays, or downtown Columbia Falls on Thursdays.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called for efforts to recruit 100,000 new farmers and ranchers. Farm Service Agency’s Bruce Nelson announced better programs to help young farmers acquire loans to start growing.

Hardheads and corporate lobbyists want the Farm Bill to appropriate billions in taxpayer subsidies to cheapen GE foods. Eaters simply want Congress to label these laboratory foods.

Young farmers like Courtney and Jacob, owners of Prairie Heritage Farm in Conrad, represent a generation of growers who produce organic lentils and heritage wheat directly for local eaters. Congress could boost national security by cultivating farm policy that grows more local food.

What kids eat builds a framework for health. The correlation between skyrocketing health care costs and food policy is blatantly apparent to policy makers.

Congress should listen to eaters and support more nutrient-dense choices for food programs. Congress can encourage family farmers to grow more kale, plant hearty grains for local consumption, or produce beef that is readily available to local eaters.

The 2012 Farm Bill deserves a long-term vision toward health. Eaters cannot stomach more national food policy that caters solely to paid corporate lobbyists. Montanans hunger for farm policy that feeds local appetites and embraces real food.