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Our Voices: Contact lawmakers on the Farm Bill today!

November 11, 2011 | By Diane Conners

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The much-anticipated 2012 federal Farm Bill appears to be on a head spinning, super-fast track, so the time to weigh in with lawmakers is now. This is happening because the Congressional “Super Committee,” charged with devising a deficit-cutting budget plan, could end up making some very important decisions about our national food and farming policy.

It is an unprecedented situation: A public, Farm Bill-writing process that typically takes a year or more—for a five-year bill that won’t take effect before next September—may instead be hyper-compressed into the next two weeks.

Michigan is playing a particularly important role, because our U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, while our Republican Congressmen Dave Camp and Fred Upton are both on the 12-member “Super Committee.”

Senator Stabenow is one of four Senate and House agriculture committee leaders now rushing to come up with a farm bill that makes enough cuts to keep the Super Committee happy; Representatives Camp and Upton will be voting on all Super Committee decisions, including any Farm Bill proposals. Although there’s no guarantee the Super Committee will do what the four agriculture committee leaders recommend, it’s crucial to push the former to submit the smartest possible bill to the latter.

And it’s also important to note that, agricultural issues aside, if the Super Committee does not reach consensus on its overall work, it will dissolve, automatic cuts prescribed during this summer’s deficit reduction wrangling, largely aimed at the Defense Department, will take effect, and it might be back to something like business as usual for the 2012 Farm Bill, although it may well face severe budget cuts in that more normal process, as well.

So, either way, speaking up today on the Farm Bill is crucial. There may or may not be another time to weigh in.

If you want more information on these seemingly Byzantine inner workings, including the agriculture cuts Stabenow and company may submit to the Super Committee, check Mark Bittman’s take in The New York Times. There’s also a good article about this situation from deep in industrial farm country published in the Des Moines Register, and several excellent blogs from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

I wrote to Senator Stabenow’s agriculture staff on behalf of the Michigan Land Use Institute last week. Now I’m urging you to write Ms. Stabenow, too, as well Mr. Camp and Mr. Upton, and ask them to include the following in any work they do on the 2012 Farm Bill or deficit reduction package in the next few, crucial weeks:

  • Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act (S 1773, HR 3286). This comprehensive bill supports the development of “infrastructure” such as local-based storage and small-scale processing of locally grown foods; increased ability of low-income families to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers markets, farm market stores, and community supported agriculture farms; and support to schools in purchasing more locally grown foods.
  • The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011 (HR 3236) This bill addresses many of the barriers that young farmers face if they want to get into farming, such as limited access to land, high land prices, credit, business planning, and training.
  • Community Agriculture Development and Jobs Act of 2011 (HR 3225). This bill supports urban farming and community gardening initiatives, getting good food to residents who often don’t even have grocery stores nearby.
  • Preservation of Farm Bill funded nutrition programs, including SNAP Education and other SNAP spending. SNAP, the new name for food stamps, was already cut last year, so should be spared; and it’s a great way to connect low-income families to healthy, locally grown food.
  • Protect working lands. This proposal from American Farm Land Trust would retain current funding levels for conservation easements to permanently protect farm land from development.
  • Use the Grassley-Johnson language to put real caps on farm subsidies so that they don’t just help  “big farms get even bigger,” and to oppose the “Brown-Thune” plan that, according to The New York Times, is being heavily criticized as a bait and switch scheme that defeats such capping efforts.
  • Require farms that get subsidies of any kind from Farm Bill programs comply with provisions that protect the environment against soil erosion and damage of wetlands. Let’s not use taxpayer dollars to harm the environment.

These proposals leverage the power of local food economies to build jobs, preserve farmland, assure a new generation of farmers, and get healthy food to all. They should be included in any Farm Bill or deficit reduction package.

But time is extraordinarily short, so I urge you to act today. Please also share this blog with folks who care about building a local food economy, curbing wasteful spending on farming practices and policies destructive to the land and our diets, and making sure small and mid-sized farms are not cut off at the knees as federal lawmakers impose severe budget cuts.

Find out how to contact these lawmakers at contactingthecongress.org.

Diane Conners directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Healthy Food for All project. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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