Too many cooks in farm bill kitchen

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If urban sprawl consumes two acres of America’s finite farmland every minute, should Congress, through the 2007 farm bill, address farmland protection?
If one out of three Americans is either overweight or obese, should the $57 billion the U.S. Department of Agriculture will spend on domestic food assistance in 2007/08 be tied to USDA’s dietary guidelines?
Should the nation’s No. 2 farm state, Texas, with $17 billion in annual food and fiber sales, receive three times more federal farm program money than California, the nation’s top ag producer with $32 billion in annual sales?
Atypical questions. These aren’t typical farm policy questions asked of Congress by ag players jockeying for ears and money in farm bill years like 2007.
But 2007 isn’t a typical legislative year, and Congress already is facing some very atypical farm bill ideas.
Part of the uniqueness is the debate itself. House Ag Chairman Collin Peterson has promised subcommittee chiefs will write the bill.
While that’s the way the process is designed to work, neither of the last two farm bills followed that script.
In 1996, House ag boss Pat Roberts wrote Freedom to Farm almost single-handedly; House leaders then ordered it passed.
The 2002 trail was wider – it had to be; Dems controlled the Senate – yet House leaders drained important Senate reforms from the final bill and, later, failed to fund ones they couldn’t kill.
New players. Now new players with new power are looking to make new farm bill hay.
For example, California Democrat Dennis Cardoza, new chair the House Ag Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture, will “maintain California’s leadership position in agriculture” by delivering his state’s growers “full participation in the farm bill.”
It isn’t a boast. Cardoza already has a firm draft bill – and dozens of House votes – to send farm bill money (up to $1 billion per year, say those who’ve read it) to long-time farm program outsiders like fruit and vegetable growers.
Coalitions. Likewise, two other farm and food coalitions – representing far more voters than there are farmers and ranchers – have announced sweeping farm bill reform plans.
On Jan. 18, over 200 farm, ranch, consumer, labor, religious, environmental, and wildlife groups proclaimed their intent to include a “competition” title in the 2007 farm bill.
Its aim, they noted, is “to make sure we reverse the advance of industrial food production, processing, and marketing.”
Tall order? Sure, but some tall legislators, like Iowa’s ag twins, Senate Ag Chair Tom Harkin and his GOP counterpart Chuck Grassley, have endorsed some or most of the corporation-clipping proposal.
Four days later an alliance of over 350 farm, food, public health, anti-hunger, conservation, faith, and rural development groups called the Farm and Food Policy Project unveiled a detailed shopping list for their ideal 2007 farm bill.
Old and new. At their core, though, all these newly-found ideas and players really aren’t that new, explained Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and a member of the Farm and Food Policy Project.
“It’s just that now there’s a growing awareness in Congress,” he said, “that yesterday’s ‘farm’ bill should move more to a ‘farm and food’ bill to serve all of America – consumers, communities, the environment and conservation, not just farmers and ranchers.”
The biggest issue for these new players, however, will be the biggest, oldest issue of all farm bill debates – farm program money.
It’s tighter than a vest on a statue and might be capped at $10 billion per year.
What isn’t capped this time around, though, is the process: it’s wide open and anyone who has ever lifted a fork, knife or pitchfork is walking into the fray.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.)

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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