Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Forbidden Fruits & Veggies

New York Times Op-Ed placed here for safe keeping.

Here's the skinny: The federal government, at the behest of big agribusiness concerns in California, Florida, and Texas, has put severe financial penalties in place to keep farmers in other states from converting land previously used to grow government-subsidized commodity crops (corn, soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton) to growing fruits and vegetables for local consumption.

March 1, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor
My Forbidden Fruits (and Vegetables)

Rushford, Minn.

IF you’ve stood in line at a farmers’ market recently, you know that the local food movement is thriving, to the point that small farmers are having a tough time keeping up with the demand.

But consumers who would like to be able to buy local fruits and vegetables not just at farmers’ markets, but also in the produce aisle of their supermarket, will be dismayed to learn that the federal government works deliberately and forcefully to prevent the local food movement from expanding. And the barriers that the United States Department of Agriculture has put in place will be extended when the farm bill that House and Senate negotiators are working on now goes into effect.

As a small organic vegetable producer in southern Minnesota, I know this because my efforts to expand production to meet regional demand have been severely hampered by the Agriculture Department’s commodity farm program. As I’ve looked into the politics behind those restrictions, I’ve come to understand that this is precisely the outcome that the program’s backers in California and Florida have in mind: they want to snuff out the local competition before it even gets started.

Last year, knowing that my own 100 acres wouldn’t be enough to meet demand, I rented 25 acres on two nearby corn farms. I plowed under the alfalfa hay that was established there, and planted watermelons, tomatoes and vegetables for natural-food stores and a community-supported agriculture program.

All went well until early July. That’s when the two landowners discovered that there was a problem with the local office of the Farm Service Administration, the Agriculture Department branch that runs the commodity farm program, and it was going to be expensive to fix.

The commodity farm program effectively forbids farmers who usually grow corn or the other four federally subsidized commodity crops (soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton) from trying fruit and vegetables. Because my watermelons and tomatoes had been planted on “corn base” acres, the Farm Service said, my landlords were out of compliance with the commodity program.

I’ve discovered that typically, a farmer who grows the forbidden fruits and vegetables on corn acreage not only has to give up his subsidy for the year on that acreage, he is also penalized the market value of the illicit crop, and runs the risk that those acres will be permanently ineligible for any subsidies in the future. (The penalties apply only to fruits and vegetables — if the farmer decides to grow another commodity crop, or even nothing at all, there’s no problem.)

In my case, that meant I paid my landlords $8,771 — for one season alone! And this was in a year when the high price of grain meant that only one of the government’s three crop-support programs was in effect; the total bill might be much worse in the future.

In addition, the bureaucratic entanglements that these two farmers faced at the Farm Service office were substantial. The federal farm program is making it next to impossible for farmers to rent land to me to grow fresh organic vegetables.

Why? Because national fruit and vegetable growers based in California, Florida and Texas fear competition from regional producers like myself. Through their control of Congressional delegations from those states, they have been able to virtually monopolize the country’s fresh produce markets.

That’s unfortunate, because small producers will have to expand on a significant scale across the nation if local foods are to continue to enter the mainstream as the public demands. My problems are just the tip of the iceberg.

Last year, Midwestern lawmakers proposed an amendment to the farm bill that would provide some farmers, though only those who supply processors, with some relief from the penalties that I’ve faced — for example, a soybean farmer who wanted to grow tomatoes would give up his usual subsidy on those acres but suffer none of the other penalties. However, the Congressional delegations from the big produce states made the death of what is known as Farm Flex their highest farm bill priority, and so it appears to be going nowhere, except perhaps as a tiny pilot program.

Who pays the price for this senselessness? Certainly I do, as a Midwestern vegetable farmer. But anyone trying to do what I do on, say, wheat acreage in the Dakotas, or rice acreage in Arkansas would face the same penalties. Local and regional fruit and vegetable production will languish anywhere that the commodity program has influence.

Ultimately of course, it is the consumer who will pay the greatest price for this — whether it is in the form of higher prices I will have to charge to absorb the government’s fines, or in the form of less access to the kind of fresh, local produce that the country is crying out for.

Farmers need the choice of what to plant on their farms, and consumers need more farms like mine producing high-quality fresh fruits and vegetables to meet increasing demand from local markets — without the federal government actively discouraging them.

Jack Hedin is a farmer.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 1st, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC)
Outrageous! Thanks so much for posting this.
Mar. 1st, 2008 07:59 pm (UTC)
It almost seems unreal to me... food seems like such a basic thing, to think it has become just another greedy scandal. Wow:/

Food and the spectre of Malthus

For decades, the United States has been slipping in international rankings of life expectancy, as other countries improve health care, nutrition and lifestyles.
Is Your Food Safe?
What the biotech industry doesn't want you to know

What is the average life expectancy of Americans? For a long time it has been the low seventies for men and upper seventies for women. So it comes as a shock to learn that the average life expectancy for Americans has dropped to 69.3 years, according to the America's Health Rankings report, issued at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting.

Mar. 3rd, 2008 02:50 pm (UTC)
I'd have to look into this a little more, but I do have some knowledge of agricultural programs, so I'll toss this out real quickly before running out the door. Subsidy programs are specific with respect to the crops that are being funded. if you start growing something else, you're no longer eligible for that particular funding, and if you've already collected it for that acreage, you have to give part or all of it back. I didn't know about the penalties, and haven't had time to review that issue. However, accepting a subsidy is essentially a legally binding contract with the government, and I wouldn't be surprised to find that there are penalties for violating it. You can't expect to take money in return for agreeing to do one thing with the land, and then do something different, without any consequences.

I'm surprised, though, that somebody renting the land would apparently pay the penalty. It's up to the "landlords" to stay in compliance, not a renter.

The right way to have done this would have been to wait until the current subsidy on the land ran out and then exclude it from the next subsidy application, which would make the landlord legally able to rent the land out for any purpose necessary. The ultimate fix would be to establish subsidy programs for locally grown fruit and vegetable crops, and put a transfer process in place to allow conversion from one to another with a minimum of difficulty.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

Latest Month

August 2017


Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Ideacodes