Picture a 3000-mile-long dinner table spanning the United States. Then imagine all 303 million Americans sitting down to eat. All of them, that is, except for members of Congress and a bunch of lobbyists and farm activists, who are in the kitchen planning our menu.
Welcome to the 2007 Farm Bill. Every five years, policymakers draft a massive piece of legislation that virtually no one — including the lawmakers themselves — can wrap their head around. This year's bill tips the scales at more than 1500 pages, with an estimated price tag of nearly $300 billion. For the next five years, this bill will go a long way toward determining what we grow, what we eat, and whose wallets and waistbands grow the widest.
What does the Farm Bill have to do with ordinary Vermonters? For starters, it will help keep local dairy farmers afloat if milk prices go sour. It will help Vermont's organic sector, the largest per capita in the nation, keep its farms certified and its market viable. It will help stock Vermont's food shelves, and offer schoolchildren more nutritious lunches. The Green Mountain State will also reap bountiful harvests from other, non-farm-related programs included in the omnibus bill, such as those that fund renewable energy, Lake Champlain restoration and rural broadband development.
Beyond the dollars and cents, cultural changes are afoot. This year's farm bill debate marks a watershed moment in consumer consciousness. Citizens and media outlets are more involved than ever before in shaping federal food policy; terms such as "fair trade," "sustainable‚" and "carbon footprint‚" are now commonly heard around American dinner tables. Likewise, the number of farmers' markets is skyrocketing. And, as one Farm Bill expert observes, politicians have increasingly been looking into which farming practices should be promoted and which ones should lie fallow.
"The Farm Bill used to be this good ol' boy love fest," notes Dave Rogers, policy advisor for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. "It's gotten a lot more complicated for traditional agricultural interests — the ones who always ran the game — because consumers, citizens, environmentalists and organizations have gotten involved."
Rogers suggests that Vermont is ahead of the curve in this brand of engagement — just ask any localvore activist. In that spirit, Seven Days took a bite out of the Farm Bill and asked local farmers, activists and ag experts to chew the fat on milk, food, farming, hunger and whatever else came to mind. We then compressed their responses into easily digestible portions.
Admittedly, not everything in the Farm Bill is easy to swallow. But at the very least, it should prompt all of us to take a closer look at what's in the fridge, and how it got there.
CEO, Vermont Foodbank, East Barre
What's filling his grocery bags: $5 million in new federal food assistance for Vermont
Food banks and emergency food pantries are the "canaries in the coal mine," says Doug O'Brien, because their clientele reflects economic downturns long before the warning signs appear in government statistics. For the last several years, the Vermont Foodbank and its 240 member organizations statewide have experienced "significant increases in demand" for their services. In the last year alone, the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf has seen a 30 percent rise in the number of people seeking emergency food assistance.
Currently, some 50,000 Vermonters are on food stamps, and 60,000 receive some other form of food assistance. The 2007 Farm Bill greatly expands its availability, bringing an additional $5 million into Vermont over the next five years.
"This matters. One in 10 Vermonters is directly impacted by what's in this Farm Bill," O'Brien notes. "It will help families get through a difficult winter, and hopefully on the path where they don't have to go to a food shelf."
This is the fourth Farm Bill O'Brien has worked on — he was an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy when the latter chaired the Senate agriculture committee. But O'Brien sees this Farm Bill having a much broader influence than did previous ones. "It's about trade, it's about foreign policy, it's about energy policy, and it's about very broad issues of conservation," he explains. "If you wear clothes and you eat, this bill affects you."
Pig farmer, Sugar Mountain Farm, West Topsham
What gets him hog wild: authorization of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), and all federal subsidies
Walter Jeffries has been farming and homesteading for more than 15 years. His small, diversified family farm in Orange primarily raises pigs — currently, he has about 40 breeder sows and 200 grower pigs, which will eventually be sold to local stores and restaurants.
Jeffries is incensed by the inclusion of NAIS in the 2007 Farm Bill. This controversial program would require virtually everyone who raises livestock — from the 10,000-head cattle ranch to the small, mom-and-pop egg farm — to register their premises with the government and assign tracking numbers to all their animals. Computer chips would be implanted in all livestock — with the cost borne by farmers — so that each animal's location and origin could be easily traced in the event of an epidemic or food scare.
"It's absurd that they're putting the financial burden of NAIS on the small producers," says Jeffries, who created a website — http://www.NoNAIS.org — to fight this program. "If you look at where the food safety issues are, they're all after slaughter."
Jeffries also wants Congress to drop all government subsidies, not just those for farmers. "Something like 96 percent of subsidies go to big agriculture and other large corporations in other sectors," he says. "We really don't need to be taking our money and paying them so that they can make bigger profits."
State legislator and farmer, Full Moon Farm, Burlington
His pick for Farm Bill's cream of the crop: expansion of the MILC program
Besides chairing the House Agriculture Committee, Dave Zuckerman (P-Burlington) farms vegetables with his wife in the Intervale. He admits he hasn't followed all the political wheeling and dealing on the 2007 Farm Bill — Vermont's congressional delegation is better positioned to do that. Nevertheless, Zuckerman sees this bill bringing lots of benefits home to the Green Mountain State.
Chief among them are improvements to the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program, which indemnifies dairy farmers whenever milk prices drop below a certain threshold. As Zuckerman points out, Vermont is the most single-commodity-dependent of all the nation's ag states, with milk revenues representing about 75 percent of all farm receipts. Needless to say, he's heartened that Congress wants to expand the eligibility for MILC and the percentage of assistance it pays to dairy farmers when milk prices go bad.
Zuckerman is pleased with this bill's emphasis on so-called "specialty crops" — a euphemism, he notes, for produce other than the "big five" commodities, i.e., wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton and rice. He's also happy with the shift toward more organic research, conservation, soil management and alternative fuels.
Why should Vermonters care about the 2007 Farm Bill? "Certainly, any non-farmers who get nutritional support should be interested," Zuckerman says. "But also, anyone who wants farming to continue as a cultural staple in this state ought to care, because these programs and this bill will dictate the direction of agriculture for the next five years."
Burlington & Washington, D.C.
Where Bernie sees promising yields: $4.3 billion for nutritional programs; expansion of MILC eligibility to 90 percent of dairy farmers; $270 million for biofuels.
What gets his goat: billions in subsidies for wealthy farmers and agribusiness
Vermont's junior senator doesn't serve on the Senate agriculture committee, but he and his staff have logged plenty of hours on the Farm Bill. Sanders has gotten one amendment accepted so far: a program to help low-income schoolchildren learn how to garden and raise their own vegetables. It's part of the bill's emphasis on fighting the epidemic of obesity in America.
Sanders also supports this bill's efforts to address such issues as global warming, the loss of small family farms, and hunger. "To my mind, it's a national embarrassment in the richest country in the world that we have 35 million people, some 12 percent of our population, who go hungry at some point in the year," he says. In fact, Sanders plans to force a floor debate on the issue by introducing a bill to eliminate hunger in the United States within five years.
Sanders admits that, while this Farm Bill is far from perfect, it's better than many previous editions. "Obviously, I don't think that agribusiness and wealthy farmers need the kind of support that they're getting," he says. "But if you are concerned about poverty and hunger in America, and if you're concerned about obesity, you're concerned about the Farm Bill."
Dean, University of Vermont College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Burlington
What she thinks is sweet in the Farm Bill: the fresh fruit and vegetable program What ought to be composted: federal corn subsidies
With a background as a dietician, Rachel Johnson believes the 2007 Farm Bill is as much about eating as it is about farming. She hopes this bill goes further than previous ones in addressing America's unhealthy sugar addiction, especially to high-fructose corn syrup.
"I'm very concerned about the obesity epidemic in this country, particularly among children," Johnson says. "I'm always hoping the Farm Bill will somehow align what we know constitutes a healthy diet with [changes to] the farm and commodity supports."
Johnson is especially pleased that Congress is expanding the fresh fruit and vegetable program. Currently, it provides enough funding to serve 175,000 elementary school kids nationwide; the 2007 Farm Bill increases that figure to 4.5 million. "My hope is that Vermont schoolchildren will be part of that 4.5 million, because it's a tremendous way to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption," she says. "We know that exposure to new foods at an early age over time leads to a preference for those foods."
Johnson also wants more funding for agricultural research, especially in the fields of nutrition, environmental conservation and sustainable food systems.
Why Vermonters should care: "It's a huge bill!" she declares. "It impacts everything we eat and the price of our food."
Administrator, Vermont Farm Bureau, Richmond
Where he sees the 2007 Farm Bill's biggest cow flop: failure to create a guest-worker program for foreign dairy workers
As the self-described "Voice of Vermont Agriculture," the Vermont Farm Bureau has worked on a variety of provisions in the Farm Bill that could benefit Vermont producers. Among them was the AgJOBS. This amendment, which began as a stand-alone bill, would have created a temporary guest-worker program for year-round farmhands. It would also have provided a mechanism for legalizing undocumented workers who have been in the country for at least a year.
Buskey sees such a program as critically important to Vermont's ag economy, since between 50 and 75 percent of the state's dairy farms rely on foreign laborers. It's widely acknowledged that most of the estimated 2000 to 3000 foreign dairy workers in Vermont — most from Mexico — are in this country illegally. However, dairy farms cannot avail themselves of other federal guest workers, because those programs are seasonal in nature. As Buskey notes, "We don't stop milking the cows at a certain time of the year."
Late last week, Buskey learned that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) won't be including the AgJOBS program in this Farm Bill. Though Vermont's congressional delegation has been supportive of the measure, Buskey says Sanders has concerns about how its provisions would affect domestic wages. "Obviously, we're disappointed," he adds.
Policy advisor, Northeast Organic Farming Association, Waterbury
Farm Bill's bumper crop, in his view: more funding for organic farm conversion, certification and research
Dave Rogers knows all too well how quickly a federal Farm Bill can become "a big, multiheaded beast." For 28 years, he taught ag policy and ethics at the University of Vermont, including the history of Farm Bills dating back to the 1930s. "It's like a $300 billion grab bag over five years," he says. "There's something in there for everybody."
This time, though, Rogers is down in the trenches himself, slugging it out on behalf of NOFA Vermont. As he explains, organic farming usually gets short shrift in Farm Bills. Despite being the fastest-growing sector of the food economy — organics now account for 3 percent of all retail food sales — it gets just 0.6 percent of federal research dollars.
Not this time. NOFA Vermont, working with the National Organic Coalition, has been able to boost that funding threefold, to $16 million per year over five years. Though the sum is still "a pittance," Rogers says, this bill offers more technical and financial help to farmers who want to convert to organic farming and maintain their certification.
The conservation portion of the bill also better acknowledges the role of organic farming in meeting federal standards for animal waste management and soil and water protection. "All of that stuff is money the federal government shovels to farmers, often in huge amounts, to get them to clean up their act," Rogers notes. "In organic farming, we do all that already, and the cost is paid for in the marketplace.
"People understand now that the Farm Bill concerns them. It concerns their families, it concerns their communities, it concerns the environment," he adds. "All you have to do is open your refrigerator door, and the Farm Bill is staring back at you."
Middlesex & Washington, D.C.
What curdles his milk: a potential Bush veto of MILC
Senator Leahy has seen a Farm Bill or two in his day. The six-term Democrat, who lives on a tree farm when he's not in the nation's capital, wrote the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 while chairing the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
Leahy has since stepped down as ag chair, though he still serves on the committee. What's on his farm-bill radar this time? Organics. The 2007 bill will help more conventional farmers make the transition to organic cultivation practices.
"I spent nearly 10 years trying to get an organic title through, over enormous opposition," Leahy reflects. He suggests the Farm Bill will "preserve‚" work on organics that's been done since 1990, adding that he's jazzed about a host of other provisions related to nutrition and water quality.
Of course, there's also milk — Vermont's $350 million dairy industry. In 2002, Leahy helped create the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC), which helps dairy farmers survive rough stretches. In 2005, he helped secure MILC funding through September of this year. Now, despite a Bush veto threat, the senator is trying to extend the program through 2012.
What about the oft-heard complaint that federal farm policy merely preserves the status quo of corporate farming? Leahy calls that an "unrealistic‚" concern. "When you're dealing with an administration that's not helpful in these areas," he says, "sometimes a holding action is a victory."
In spite of his assertion, Leahy has yet to take a position on a much-publicized, still-pending 2007 Farm Bill amendment. Sponsored by Midwestern senators Charles Grassley and Byron Dorgan, the amendment would cap subsidies to farms at $250,000; left-leaning journalists and reputable food advocacy groups claim the legislation would limit corporate control of U.S. food systems.
VT Agency of Agriculture, Montpelier
Pest he says threatens ag funding: the Iraq war
Who's afraid of Washington politicos? Not Roger Allbee. Despite overseeing a state agency, he isn't afraid to talk smack about federal policymaking. He wishes the war in Iraq, for example, weren't siphoning funds away from renewable-energy projects.
Ten months ago, Allbee took the reins of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. So it makes sense that he supports a wagon-full of Farm Bill provisions, including reauthorization of MILC, research into value-added ag products, and beefed-up nutrition programs.
Still, Allbee is skeptical of the feds. Previous "Farm Bills . . . didn't tend to be partisan," says the former staffer to Sen. Jim Jeffords. "People could agree on issues without getting into political debates. Washington's become more polarized, unfortunately.
"I'm not down there every day," he adds. "But when the bill went through on the House side this time, it was the first time you actually saw one party, by and large, arguing for a bill not being passed on the floor." Allbee says he would almost liken those recent negotiations to a "political log jam."
Cooperative relations manager, St. Albans Cooperative Creamery
Tops on his Farm Bill wish list: help with rising energy costs
Tom Gates knows milk. He ought to: The guy has been managing public relations at the only Vermont-based dairy co-op in the state for two years. The 500-member cooperative produces 1.26 billion pounds of milk annually, about half of which is processed in Franklin County. The rest is sent to such dairy bigwigs as Ben & Jerry's and HP Hood.
According to Gates, the 2007 Farm Bill builds on its 2002 predecessor in three ways: First, Leahy's prized MILC program would expand to include dairy farmers with larger herds. Second, milkers would be eligible to receive more in direct payments when milk prices tank — as they did last year. Finally, the Farm Bill may also increase funding of a federal dairy-promotion program.
Despite his enthusiasm, Gates says Congress could do better. He notes, for instance, that the feds don't factor the rising cost of fuel into dairy subsidies. With oil prices skyrocketing, that's a big deal.
Gates sees some movement in that direction. "Certainly, there's no guarantee," he says. "But we're hopeful there will be some positive discussion regarding feed and energy."
Dairy farmer, wood-chip producer Sheldon
His biggest Farm Bill beef: corn subsidies
Most Vermonters probably know that the Farm Bill sets agricultural policy. But the bill also touches on the seemingly distinct topic of renewable energy. Just ask Bill Rowell: He has horses in both races.
Rowell, a longtime Sheldon dairyman who sits on the state's Rural Development Committee, is also the oldest supplier of wood chips to Burlington's McNeil Generating Station. In March, he became the third member of Central Vermont Public Service's "Cow Power" program, which helps farmers convert manure to energy via methane digesters. Rowell's dairy farm produces 10 million gallons of manure annually. Now, thanks in part to USDA grant money, that poop powers between 250 and 300 homes.
What does Rowell think of proposed farm-bill provisions on renewable energy? Citing a common eco-refrain, Rowell suggests the government's multi-billion-dollar love affair with corn-based ethanol is shortsighted. "What I don't like about subsidizing ethanol production is, we're taking a resource and making a waste stream out of it," Rowell gripes. "We need to be using up the waste stream we already have as a resource."
Chair, Farmer's Watershed Alliance, Alburgh
What he's gunning for: engineering bucks
Back in 1996, Sen. Patrick Leahy created the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) to help fund Lake Champlain clean-up efforts. If the senator has his way this fall, EQIP will draw more than a billion dollars per year from future farm-bill coffers.
In Vermont, which has the highest average EQIP contract in the nation, program funds usually finance construction of manure pits, which help prevent pollution of Lake Champlain. EQIP benefits farmers such as Roger Rainville, whose Farmer's Watershed Alliance monitors water quality in the Missisquoi Bay watershed. FWA conducts water-quality assessments for 200 dairy farmers in Franklin and Grand Isle counties.
But Rainville isn't completely satisfied with EQIP. The program is helpful, he says, but not helpful enough; FWA needs more cash to cover its engineering fees.
"The average cost in the state of Vermont to do a farm project is $15,000 to $20,000 just for the engineering part of it," Rainville explains, "and that comes out of a farmer's pocket. The EQIP program needs some restructuring to make it work in Vermont and the Northeast, and we're hoping to get the message across to Washington."
Director, Rural Vermont, Montpelier
Shollenberger to Leahy: Throw family farmers a bone!
Amy Shollenberger directs Rural Vermont, the state's principal family-farm advocacy group. For years, her organization has led the charge against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). No surprise, then, that she thinks the 2007 Farm Bill gets too cozy with Big Ag.
Shollenberger has two specific concerns: First, she worries that the bill gives "backhanded" approval to NAIS. She also wonders why Leahy hasn't done more to promote "reasonable scale" agriculture in his support of the EQIP water-quality program. Leahy is seeking to extend EQIP benefits to larger farms.
For the most part, Shollenberger is staying clear of Washington. "We made an organizational decision that we could only affect so much on the Farm Bill, so it wasn't our top-tier issue this year, although we are monitoring it," she says. "The Farm Bill is all about the commodity food industry. That's not to say there aren't good things in it . . . but they're a relatively small piece."
There's plenty going on in Vermont to keep her busy. "The farmers that we're working with," Shollenberger explains, "have basically said, 'It's the Farm Bill; we don't have a lot of control over what happens to it, so let's focus on the opportunity we have here in the state to make some progress.'"
State legislator, dairy farmer, activist, North Troy
Where he sees something rotten in the Farm Bill: Subsidies hurt foreign farmers
Last summer, Dexter Randall traveled to western Africa to visit with small-scale farmers. "It was a long way to go for a little guy like me," he recalls.
On the surface, Randall's daily grind doesn't seem to have international scope — he's been milking cows in the Northeast Kingdom for decades. But this activist-turned-legislator points out that commodity subsidies to American farmers have devastating global implications.
"I've been in Nicaragua and talked with coffee farmers down there, and I've also been to Mali and talked with cotton farmers over there," he says. "The lion's share of subsidies in the Farm Bill are going to huge corporate farms; they're doing nothing but causing overproduction and driving down rural prices."
Beef farmer, East Hardwick
His Farm Bill cri de coeur: Free the burgers!
Most of the time, Helm Nottermann doesn't pay much attention to federal farm policy. Why should he? Every winter, the 68-year-old former dairyman quietly raises about 25 grass-fed Holsteins for slaughter on his East Hardwick homestead. Come summer, Nottermann packs his patties into a solar-powered cart and wheels them to farmers' markets in Stowe, Waitsfield and Smugglers' Notch.
When he's peddling product, out-of-state tourists and business owners ask Nottermann if he ships long distance. No can do: Nottermann's cows are certified by Vermont but not by the USDA. That means his meat can't be sold across state lines. "Summer people get hooked on our meat and, legally, I can't sell it to them," he laments. "To me, it's kind of absurd."
According to Rural Vermont's Amy Shollenberger, a certain Farm Bill provision could allow small farmers like Nottermann to sell state-inspected meat far and wide. Understandably, Nottermann is psyched. "It would allow me to expand locally," he explains. "You know, New Hampshire is pretty close to here."