Many of us can remember that moment while eating fresh broccoli, sweet corn or kale and we were struck by how incredibly delicious vegetables taste. It is as if we were eating vegetables for the first time in our lives. In Atina Diffley’s new book, Turn Here Sweet Corn, we learn what it takes to produce that sort of vegetable—the hard work, the love of the land, the capacity for taking risk, and the joys and pains of a farm family.
Read from one perspective, the book is a chronicle of Atina Diffley’s life so far. She paints a portrait of a farm girl with a fierce independent streak, longing to get away, but also longing to farm. As an adventurous young woman, she leaves home, pursues music, marries unhappily, has a child, is introduced to the world of food co-ops, falls in love, and begins a very interesting and challenging life raising organic food with her husband Martin Diffley. Throughout, she draws on the strength of her roots, and nurturing those roots becomes a metaphor that sustains her story.
From another perspective, this is the story of Atina’s relationship with her husband Martin. From her descriptions of falling in love to their conversations decades later, Diffley gives the reader a picture of a true partnership. The Diffleys are fifth generation farmers whose lives and farms are an important piece of our region’s history, of its development from a frontier settlement to a metropolis. Everyone on the family farm had a job, of course; growing up, Martin was the “gardener,” the one who grew vegetables. To Martin, gardening means loving the land more than loving farming.
The importance of the Farm Bill’s Research Title is hard to overstate. It may not have a direct impact on people’s lives as the food assistance programs and farm programs do, but it is a crucial driver in the long-term direction of U.S. agriculture. Its impact goes far beyond the USDA research institutions and also drives research at land grant universities and many other entities.
Through the enactment and implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress and this current Administration have made some positive changes to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture approaches research, and has provided more opportunities for exploring more holistic, systems-level research questions. One of the positive developments has been the development of USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). AFRI funds research, education, and extension grants that address key problems in sustaining all of agriculture, from production to human nutrition.
USDA recently provided an opportunity for the public to comment on how it conducts the granting of funds through AFRI. We at IATP see opportunities for improvement, and focused on these issues in our comments:
Yesterday our Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken introduced a bill in the Senate to protect energy programs in the Farm Bill that are critically important for rural communities. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa led the bill’s introduction, and Sen. Kent Conrad from North Dakota was also a co-sponsor.
This bill sets the stage for the 2012 Farm Bill Energy Title and draws a line in the sand to make sure that programs like the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP)and the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) don’t lose their funding. These programs have helped farmers plant more perennial crops and increase energy efficiency on the farm. Without them, farmers would have a harder time getting over some of the financial hurdles they encounter when getting started making environmental and energy improvements on the farm.
We would like to see the entire Minnesota congressional delegation show similar support and leadership in the House, and we are working together with several otherMinnesota groups to encourage them to do so. See a sample of the letter we sent to all of our federal legislators.
The U.S. Farm Bill—arguably the nation’s largest and most influential food policy tool—is written by Congress every five years. It includes far-reaching programs for crop production, farmers, rural development, energy, conservation and international food aid—the largest portion going to food assistance programs.
With a lot at stake, and serious economic and political challenges at hand, the 2012 Farm Bill will set the stage for the ongoing public debate: In one corner, the industrial food system and powerful lobbyists paid generously to protect the interests of agribusiness and the food industry giants; in the other, growing public support for fair sustainable agriculture that supports farmers, rural communities and protects the environment.
IATP has been ﬁghting for a fair, healthy and sustainable Farm Bill for more than 25 years. In our new What’s at Stake? series, we will analyze how the Farm Bill affects issues we all care about.
Read the entire series, including an introduction, on IATP’s Farm Bill page:
Three years of negotiations on guidelines to govern the tenure of land, fisheries and forests (commonly referred to as the Voluntary Guidelines, or VG) came to a successful close on Friday, March 9 in Rome. Under the auspices of the newly reconfigured Committee on World Food Security (CFS) (housed at the FAO with a secretariat shared among the FAO, the World Food Program and the International Fund for Agriculture and Development, or IFAD), the negotiations were contentious and important.
Ninety-six governments, accompanied by U.N. agencies, civil society organizations, farmer organizations and private sector representatives worked through three rounds of negotiations over as many years to come to agreement. The talks were chaired by the United States, whose negotiators earned the praise of the participants for their commitment to finding agreement across often significant divides. The conclusion of the VGs (see the FAO press release) marks an important step towards providing some protection for small-holders and communities around the world, who have found their productive assets (arable land, or fishing waters, or forests) under siege by a wave of investor interest from private companies and wealthy food importing countries.
Today, the Senate Agriculture Committee will hear arguments to expand the federal crop insurance program in the 2012 Farm Bill. Most likely, proponents of this expansion will point to the devastating crop losses wrought by extreme weather last year. Indemnity payouts for 2011 have so far cost taxpayers a record $10 billion, a number expected to grow as claims are processed.
Crop insurance proponents are right: Farming is getting riskier all the time. Last year we saw more extreme storms, more record heat, more droughts and more floods than in almost any previous year. According to climatologists, it’s a pattern that’s only going to get worse as the effects of climate change grow. Right now, our federal crop insurance program only protects farmers from being wiped out financially from extreme weather. Farmers need that protection, but the rest of us—the eaters—also need a secure, reliable food system.
There are ways to make agriculture more resilient to extreme weather. Farmers can plant more perennial crops, which require less water and hold on better to soil during floods. In drought-prone regions, they can select drought-tolerant crop varieties or change grazing or irrigation methods, among other strategies. Farming techniques that protect and enhance the soil, and use less water and energy, are those that stand the best chance of holding on when the weather turns bad.
Our global food system hinges on secrecy. The anonymous nature of where the food in our supermarket was produced brings one layer of secrecy. But even if you can solve that puzzle, how it was produced—and more specifically under what working conditions it was produced—remains completely hidden. This is the curtain that author Tracie McMillan pulls back in her remarkable new book, The American Way of Eating.
In the spirit of investigative journalists like Barbara Ehrenreich before her, McMillan documents her experiences picking grapes, peaches and garlic in California, working in the Wal-Mart produce section in Michigan, and in the kitchen at Applebee’s in New York City. The book is receiving a ton of high praise and deservedly so, with Rush Limbaugh a notable exception.
By Ron Leonard
Last week, Dr. Willard Cochrane passed away at the age of 98. Dr. Cochrane was an agricultural economist whose career spanned the development of agricultural economics as a profession. He was dean of the School of Agricultural Economics at the University of Minnesota where he emerged nationally as the leading proponent of the concept of supply management, which dominated a ferocious debate over farm policy after the second World War. Cochrane became the chief economist at the Department of Agriculture in 1961, joining fellow Minnesotan Orville Freeman when President John F. Kennedy appointed the latter as Secretary of Agriculture.
Freeman created the position of chief economist, which gave Cochrane responsibility for economic policy and planning. Cochrane in turn recommended that Freeman establish the Economic Research Service (ERS), restoring the Bureau of Agricultural Economics that had been dismembered after the Korean War.
With ERS as the planning platform, Cochrane directed the planning and development of the legislative proposal for supply management policy and the development of a food stamp demonstration project and the drafting of legislation for a national food stamp program. Both supply management and food stamps would become central elements of policy initiatives on farm and food programs of the Kennedy administration.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) are in the fifth day of a 6-day fast to draw attention to the unfair treatment of farmworkers in Florida tomato fields. The target of the fast, supermarket retailer Publix, has refused to join the Fair Food Program. The program's demands include paying tomato pickers a penny more per pound. Retailers will also ensure safe and healthy work conditions and support ending child labor in the fields. Publix has refused to meet with CIW to discuss the Campaign for Fair Food.
Cheap labor is one ingredient that makes food retailing profitable for corporate America. The refusal to ensure safe work conditions and fair wages for farm workers is a core problem in a food system that claims to feed the world. Perhaps the claim should be adjusted, to reflect that farm laborers and their families are excluded from the world that industry claims to feed.
The plight of farm laborer is virtually missing from most mainstream conversations about food. It is as if food magically appears from farms located in far and distant places. Another twist of fate happens and food appears in the grocery aisles of supermarkets across America. The American public must begin to understand that the industrial food complex is not magical, but a series of complex interlocking relationships between multinational companies that are supported by an even more complex set of public policies that often pit consumers' health and wellbeing against corporate interests. Frequently, the interests of the general public, family farmers and poor people are forsaken in the name of profit. Caught in the web of corporate interests and federal policies, farmworkers are purposefully ignored.
Agriculture, like the rest of the economy, sits in the midst of a marketplace dominated by a handful of big corporations. Farmers and most livestock producers have little to no say in what prices they are paid (regardless of costs), and similarly grocery store prices for consumers are non-negotiable. Our current farm policy accepts this state of affairs—paying out to farmers when the market fails and prices drop too low, and doing nothing for consumers when prices skyrocket. The main reforms being considered by Congress for the 2012 Farm Bill do nothing to change this dynamic.
Does it have to be this way? What if we had a farm policy that didn’t passively accept the wild swings of an unfettered marketplace, and had, as a goal, to ensure farmers received a fair price from agribusiness and consumers weren’t hurt by rapidly rising prices in the supermarket?
This is the intention of a new proposal rolled out by the National Farmers Union (NFU) at their annual convention in Omaha this week. The NFU makes the case that a voluntary, farmer-owned and market-driven commodity crop inventory system (MDIS) “reduces price volatility, reduces government expenses, increase the value of crop exports, and maintains net farm income over time.”
For the budget-obsessed Congress, the greatest appeal of the MDIS might be that it saves money. According to research by the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, an MDIS program would have saved an estimated $56 billion in government crop payments if it had been in place from 1998 through 2010. Compared to current crop programs, MDIS would save an estimated $40 billion from 2012 to 2021, based on USDA crop-price projections.