Some thoughts on the Farm Bill debate:
With all of the smart people in Washington, you'd think someone would come up with a new approach to the Farm Bill. But, every five years or so, we are treated to the same old rendition of "let's make a deal for our constituents."
Since World War II, the focus of Farm Bills has been to stabilize farm prices or else restrict supplies in order to raise farm prices. Generally speaking, these approaches have involved direct payments to farmers through commodity programs, mainly in the form of crop subsidies.
And, as long as a congressman or a senator can pull in big bucks for his constituents (yes, Sen. Patrick Leahy, that includes you), everyone seems to be happy. Despite periodic outcries from taxpayer watchdog groups and the Washington Post, the gravy train continues to roll. It didn't take Congress long to discard the intended reforms of the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act.
We're not suggesting any changes to the current Farm Bill being hammered out in Congress. It's too late for that. As long as Congress is willing to put money on the table, crop farmers and other ag interests would be foolish not to accept it. And, certain features of the Farm Bill do provide an important safety net, thus insuring the public of a reliable food supply.
Perhaps the next time Congress takes up a Farm Bill - in 2006 or 2007 - it will begin shifting away from the direct payment mentality that has characterized commodity agriculture for the past 50 years. Part of the focus should shift instead to a value-added agricultural model.
By value-added, we are referring to private sector initiatives that take raw agricultural commodities and develop them into exciting new products for the consumer. For instance, neutraceuticals made from milk or soybeans. (See "Demand for neutraceuticals grows" on page 52 of this month's issue.) These ventures would open up new markets for farmers and provide jobs for rural communities.
Yet, we have heard absolutely nothing in the current Farm Bill debate about such projects or the willingness of Congress to fund them.
The only aspect of the Farm Bill debate that reflects creative thinking "outside the box" is the willingness by Congress to provide economic incentives for water and land conservation. As environmental regulations become more and more onerous, it is only fitting that Congress help farmers pay for them.
As rural areas continue to lose population, it will become necessary for the agricultural interests in Congress to form coalitions with urban senators and congressmen. In order to do that, they must continue to find issues - such as the environment or food safety - that will engender support. The value-added model would fit that mode by offering important new products for the consumer, as well as job creation.
A furor was created recently when the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that wants to take money from crop programs and spend it on conservation, set up a Web site listing of everyone who receives farm subsidies. According to an article in the Dec. 19 Washington Post, that site had received 10.1 million "hits" or searches since making its debut on Nov. 6. Needless to say, many farmers were embarrassed to have this information made public.
Rather than finding ourselves in a reactive, defensive mode, let's take the offensive. Let's be proactive in our approach. Let's find ways to make our products even more valuable through research and innovation.
Congress can either provide encouragement for these efforts or else continue down the same worn path that it has followed for the past 50 years.