Shift federal farm policy back home

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Three years ago, Iowa Gov. Thomas Vilsack signed an executive order to create the Iowa Food Policy Council.

The council’s 21 members represent different food-related sectors – farms, consumers, professional associations, ag-related industries, special advisors from state government.

The goal is to lead the way in creating opportunities for farmers, business and consumers; to foster sustainable agriculture within the state (both environmentally and economically); to do what can be done locally rather than wait on Washington.

A new agriculture. Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University in Des Moines, calls it “putting a face on your food.”

And he dubs the shift a “new agriculture,” a “search for high quality, safe food; a desire to create more community in an otherwise rapidly industrializing society; and the need to make connections with people, nature, our food and the land.”

Our family sent three hogs to the processor last week, only to discover that we had oversold them. There was no pork left for us. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to put our face on their food. We could have sold 20 hogs and still had a waiting list.

But our little pig palace is not a full-time, hog-raising enterprise. How do those who market a commodity “put a face on their food?”

Winds of change. The challenge, Hamilton says, is pushing “institutional and attitudinal changes to build a local food system.”

“Federal farm programs will continue to set the economic environment for large parts of agriculture and will determine rules for conserving resources,” Hamilton writes.

“But the reality is farmers, rural communities and states cannot simply rely on federal programs to provide a farm and food policy specially designed for their needs.”

One of the simple things – which probably wasn’t so simple – was to use Iowa-raised food at the many of the council’s events, a tactic that was also embraced by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

The council is also looking at food purchasing decisions by Iowa schools, and is recommending state policy that will support local purchases.

So who benefits? Just the direct marketers, right? Wrong.

A statewide study found that if Californians increased their purchases of California-grown products just 10 percent, it would result in 5,500 new jobs and $1.3 billion in additional spending, generating $188 million in new taxes.

And in Iowa, more than 1 million hogs are now raised in more than 2,000 open bedded hoop house structures farmers have built in recent years – part of the shift from traditional thinking fostered, no doubt, by the state being willing to debate the undebatable.

The discussion needs to stop focusing on federal farm programs and start considering the opportunities farmers have to raise and sell what they grow, and the ability of communities, both local and regional, to support farmers.

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