Farms for Arms | Left Field | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published April 10, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Paybacks are a bitch. Just ask Senator Patrick Leahy, who appears to be taking it on the chin from the Bush administration for what it believes to be the Vermont Democrat’s role in blocking and rejecting its judicial nominations. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy has become a lightning rod for the right wing, which is seeing red over his handling of the powerful committee. And now the Republican leadership is taking aim at some of Leahy’s pet projects.

The Bush administration recently announced it was cutting funds for the widely popular Farmers’ Market Nutritional Program, sponsored and championed by Leahy since 1989. The $20-million program provides coupons to food-stamp recipients that are redeemable only for fresh produce at farmers’ markets. It was designed to encourage families to seek healthier food options. Moreover, the coupons were a boon to small farmers, who acquired an eager new customer base.

“There is no other program like this,” said Mary Carlson of Vermont’s Office of Economic Oppor-tunity (OEO), the agency that administers the farmers’ market initiative in Vermont under the name of the “Farm to Family Program.” “It’s popular with the coupon recipients and it puts money directly into the pockets of small farmers,” she confirms.

In fact, it’s hard to find anything controversial in the program’s mission statement. The first objective is “to provide resources to women, infants and children who are nutritionally at risk in the form of fresh, nutritious unprepared foods from farmers’ markets.” It also seeks to diversify the customer base at the markets, thus increasing the numbers of low-income shoppers who otherwise would not be there.

Since it’s impolitic to openly play the revenge card, the Bush administration is crying poverty while it slashes Leahy’s program. “The program is admirable,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Eric Bost told The New York Times. “But the issue for us and the president is that we are not able to fund everything we wanted. We care for the elderly, but we don’t have the money for this.”

The irony is that, at the same time, Bush also has been touting his proposed $50 billion increase in military spending. For a more numerical perspective, consider that the cost of the current war in Afghanistan is about $33 million a day — $13 million more than it takes to run this essential nutrition program for one year. Or, if Bush trimmed his proposed military increase to $49.98 billion, that extra $20 million would keep the farmers’ market program alive.

“It always seems like we’re left fighting for the crumbs,” said the OEO’s Carlson, “even though our job is to provide food and nutritional programs for the disadvantaged.”

Leahy isn’t taking this political swipe lightly, though. As a member of the conference committee ironing out the final language in the omnibus farm bill that dictates most federal agricultural expenditures, the senator has a few tricks up his sleeve. “This is one of Leahy’s favorite agriculture programs,” said his staffer Elizabeth Nardi. “Our goal is to override an appropriations fight with the White House and gain permanent funding for the program by adding language to the farm bill.”

While Bush’s proposed cuts wouldn’t take effect until next year’s growing season, the prospects of losing it have upset coupon recipients and the farmers who’ve come to rely on the new customers. According to a report compiled by Carlson, more than 5000 households redeemed the farmers’ market coupons last year and more than 200 Vermont growers participated. Not surprisingly, the program is most popular in Vermont’s traditionally poorer regions, with Newport, Rutland and St. Johnsbury reporting the most redemptions.

“The coupons represent about 20 percent of my sales on some market days,” said Curt Sjolander, an organic vegetable farmer from Wheelock who sells at the St. Johnsbury and Barre farmers’ markets. “And these are people who would not be buying my produce without the coupons. It’s fair to say that if this program is cut, I’m going to be losing a lot of customers.”

IN BRIEF: Slashing the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program is just one of the many contentious aspects of the new farm bill. Another is Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s last-minute amendment that would officially change the name of irradiation to pasteurization. The nuclear and food industries have been seeking this change for years, since marketing foods as “irradiated” has been disastrous for them. Dairy states like Vermont, however, don’t want pasteurization to be associated with irradiation — a technology that exposes foods to radiation equal to tens of millions of chest X-rays . . . The Northeast Kingdom town of Sheffield can’t seem to get a break. Only months after learning that the controversial quarry operation was shutting down, the town recently learned that it’s being targeted for an all-terrain-vehicle racetrack. It looks like Sheffield’s most notable resident — poet and peace-and-quiet activist Galway Kinnell — has another fight on his hands . . . It’s pretty obvious what the Vermont House of Representatives thinks of alternative forms of transportation. After voting to cut all the funding for the Champlain Flyer, the state’s first and only commuter train, they proceeded to axe an Agency of Natural Resources rule mandating the sale of electric cars in the state.