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Civic Sausage: Watch the Farm Bill

Pay attention to legislation if you care about local food, farms

Policy | April 25, 2012 | By Diane Conners

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The old cliché about lawmaking is that it’s like making sausage – best not to watch.

But sausage is a farm product, and the Farm Bill is worth watching if you care about investing in local food and farm jobs, the environment, family-scale agriculture, and healthy, local food for schools, kids, and families.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow is leading efforts to craft a new farm bill, which could impact the future of local agriculture for years to come.

Today, Thursday, April 26, is the day you can see for yourself all the different interests and politics around the Farm Bill by watching, live on your computer, a much awaited Senate Agriculture Committee meeting. (Check here for the new schedule of this important meeting and to stream it live starting at 10:30 a.m.) What you’ll see: Senators, acting in response to a wide range of constituents and industry groups, putting forth amendments to the 900-page draft bill before it heads to the full Senate for a vote. The draft was released last week.

The Senate version of the Farm Bill is important for those of us who want to build local food economies and get healthy, fresh food to all while doing it. Sustainable agriculture, local food, and food equity organizations often credit Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, for her efforts; and they put little hope for better provisions from the House, which is talking deeper cuts.

Nonetheless, sausage is sausage, even if there are local ingredients mixed in.

Senator Stabenow worked to get a bipartisan bill to the floor, but there’s not nearly enough bipartisan support for local food and small farmers. The minority ranking member of the Ag Committee, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, has been a noted critic of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Foodprogram, which promotes and groups together resources to build local farm and food economies.

Fully aware of the difficult politics involved, organizations across the country hunkered down over the weekend to review the 900-page draft bill so that they could offer up their own amendments to willing senators on the committee. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, among a number of organizations that supported putting into the bill provisions of the Local Food, Farms, & Jobs Act, provides a breakdown on what it calls “the good,” “the half-baked” and “the ugly” in the bill.

You can sign up for their updates and action alerts about what promises to be a whirlwind process as the House creates its own bill, the two houses of Congress attempt to reconcile them, and a final bill makes its way to the President—perhaps in time to escape being buried in the election season.

Industrial-scale agriculture interests are involved in the process too. Tuesday’s late-night decision todelay Wednesday morning’s planned “mark-up” of the bill was apparently over a divide between large-scale commodity growers in the South versus the Midwest.

And if you need some after-dinner reading, the full 900 pages can be downloaded  here.

Diane Conners is senior policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute and directs MLUI’s Healthy Food for All program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org. Editor’s note: This blog was updated Thursday, April 26 to reflect the new hearing schedule.

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