Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Farm Bill Musings, Part 1

Branched Oak Farm
Over the past few weeks, a number of people in my life have asked my opinion regarding the goings-on of the 2013 Farm Bill. There have also been a number of well respected food personalities who misinform the general public or don't appear to have any real grasp of what the Farm Bill really is beyond the chunk that is SNAP aka food stamps. Well, while I'm out on a farm doing farm things, I'll sit down and try to pass on what little knowledge I have. Mind you, I'm no expert, but I have learned more than my fair share about this over the past few years.

Wickham's Fruit Farm

To start, the best way to think about the Farm Bill is to think about like cable TV. It started out really small with good intentions, but as the years go on, new things are added, each with their own agenda and purpose, some making absolutely no sense to you, but the best thing in the world to others (I'm looking at your Disney Family channel). It's made celebrities of senators who haven't done anything else notable with their careers, Kim K-style. And now, we can't imagine life without it.

The first "Farm Bill" happened in 1933 (the Agricultural Adjustment Act) following the Agriculture Marketing Act of 1929 which established the Federal Farm Board. At the time, the American agricultural sector was a mess: drought in some areas, too much production in others, sharecroppers being exploited, simplistic economic theories ruled the day, just a mess. This bill started the creation of farm supports to keep farmers on the land (and out of the city), and also conservation efforts, not to conserve land, but to stop production. Imagine this as the Big 3 networks. They showed us what was possible.

The next bill, in 1938, is one of the few Farm Bills signed into law. It established price supports (subsidies) for corn, cotton and wheat, along with the Federal Crop Insurance Program. This is FOX. Sometimes useful (The Simpsons), sometimes awful (Joe Millionaire).

Zoom up to 1949 and you have the other Farm Bill that is constantly lurking about waiting to regain its foothold on society due to being signed into permanent law. Just looking at the tables accompanying the first Act (Basic Agricultural Commodities) makes me want to throw up on myself. This is the first bill that allowed us to give surpluses to friendly countries (remember this is post-WWII. Hello, Cold War, how you doing?) And guess what Washington wanted to buy?! Wheat, corn, flour, legumes, rice, vegetable oil, the "healthy" stuff. This is also the bill that had dairy price supports that threatened to make ice cream really expensive at the beginning of the year. It doesn't want you stuffing your face with frozen cream while attempting to read the entire act. This is PBS bringing us BBC and Sesame Street, but with the fundraisers all. the. damn. time.

By this point in the game, the commodity crops we know and love (or despise) today had established themselves as the pillars of our food system, and the USDA had already begun devising a plethora of programs to deal with food surpluses. Food stamps had been in use from 1939 to 1943, stopping as the "unmarketable" surpluses and widespread unemployment declined. And er mah gawd, here comes cable.

(To be continued because I need to get my bikini on and head down to a party at the lake)

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