metroactive
News, music, movies & restaurants from the editors of the Silicon Valley's #1 weekly newspaper.
Serving San Jose, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Campbell, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Fremont & nearby cities.

News and Features
July 25-August 1, 2007

home | metro santa cruz index | features | santa cruz | feature story


Phaedra

Photograph by Carlie Statsky

Tough Row to Hoe

California farmers will get more out of this Farm Bill than ever before—but that's not saying much /p>

Denise Vivar and Traci Hukill


From the crest of a small incline at the edge of a field just north of Davenport, verdant rows of radicchio, spinach, cilantro and kale line up, knitting the fertile earth with their tender roots. Beyond this field are groves of trees, and then more acres of farmland, which stop only at the edge of the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Here at Route 1 Farms, where due reverence is given to harmony and diversity, it is hard to imagine a life more peaceful or purposeful. But it is a life of service and dedication, and a hard life for many.

In his 26 years as a farmer, Jeff Larkey has scrimped, sweated and performed virtual magic to make Route 1's finances work each year. He's never received the kind of government assistance that, say, corn farmers in Iowa get; the Farm Bill, a $200-plus billion piece of legislation that lumbers through Congress every five years, has bypassed fruit and vegetable farmers like him each time while doling out billions to commodities growers (see sidebar, page 17). So Larkey's managed on his own. He hasn't even bothered with the low-interest government loans that are available, saying they come with too many strings attached.

"But that's just me," he says. "I borrow maybe $100,000 to $150,000 a year, so it's not a ton of money, and I usually pay it back after nine months."

Self-sufficiency is an admirable trait, but over the years advocates of small family farms and "specialty crops"—bureaucratese for fruits and vegetables—have begun pushing for changes in the Farm Bill and the food system overall, arguing that the current system is unfair not just to small farmers or growers from California but to everyone who eats.

"I feel really strongly about the Farm Bill, that it needs to be rewritten in a way that really looks at not just farmers, but the consumers and their food," says Tom Broz, owner of Live Earth Farms in Watsonville. "Farmers are only 2 percent of our population, and consumers are 100 percent. If we care about our food and whether we have access to sustainably grown, locally grown, healthy organic foods, the political will is going to be there to make the change."

This year, for the first time, the change could start to happen. In the coming days the House of Representatives will take up the 2007 Farm Bill, a version of which passed in committee last week. The $226 billion bill headed for the House floor includes a lot of big-ticket items, including the food stamp program, but tucked into it is a provision that never before existed: $1.6 billion worth of mandated government spending on the promotion, marketing, research and growing of fruits and vegetables over the next five years.

"There's a lot of new money for specialty crops research and marketing and distribution," says Mark Lipson, policy program director at the Santa Cruz–based Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). "That's really good for the Central Coast."

Commodity Oddity

The bulk of farming subsidies—$40 billion in the version passed last week—goes to commodity growers who farm just five crops: corn, soy, wheat, rice and cotton, with corn being the largest. The effect these have on the environment and human health is serious and getting worse. In the aisles of the grocery chains, one finds that the majority of food offered is highly processed, preserved, high in fats, sugars and calories, and endowed with scant nutritive value—and most contains some form of commodity byproduct such as corn syrup. Ultimately, the people who end up eating the most of these government-subsidized commodity crop byproducts are children and the poor.

This fundamental injustice is not lost on those who grow the food they should be eating instead.

"Good food should be available for everyone, not just those who can afford to shop at Whole Foods," Larkey says.

Ironically, while the USDA places a heavy emphasis on fruits and vegetables in the diet, and California produces over 50 percent of the nation's specialty crops, the state's growers have typically received less than 5 percent of all agricultural subsidies.

In response to a growing sense of crisis in public health and in farming, a number of advocacy groups—including OFRF, the Watsonville-based Ecological Farming Association and the Community Alliance for Family Farmers (CAFF)—banded together under the umbrella of the California Coalition for Food and Farming (CCFF). CCFF has been pressing for fundamental changes in the Farm Bill to address such concerns as conservation, support of local food movements, nutrition programs, organic farming support and subsidy reform. So far progress looks mixed on the group's ambitious agenda.

Kari Hamerschlag, a Berkeley-based policy analyst for CCFF, says that while this version of the Farm Bill is an improvement over previous iterations, any reports of victory are highly exaggerated.

"A lot of headlines are touting what a great thing this is for California, and it's overstated," she says. "Specialty crop groups and legislators are trying to paint this as a big win for California, but it's just a drop in the bucket. If you look at the overall Farm Bill, where the bulk of it is going, we have $40 billion that is still going to commodity payments. And so when you put that in perspective, it's still incredibly imbalanced."

Hamerschlag rattles off some other disappointing outcomes:

  • CCFF asked for $25 million in mandatory (guaranteed) funding each year to promote farmers markets; the committee mandated $5 million, with a bump to $10 million in a few years;
  • the group wanted $60 million for a value-added producer grant program to help small farmers turn their peaches in to peach jam, for example; the program got $20 million;
  • the Organic Transition Program, which helps conventional growers make the move into organics, got no mandated funding at all;
  • neither did the Community Food Project Grant Program, whereby youths deliver fresh fruits and vegetables door-to-door in low-income communities to improve nutrition and give small farmers a new market.
  • And the list goes on.

    Ultimately, Lipson agrees that there's still a long way to go.

    "The good news is there's incremental progress on a number of fronts," he says. "But the measures we got are really highly compromised. All our organic objectives got moved forward substantially toward our goals, but not all the way."

    Lipson's particular expertise lies in the area of organics research and education. CCFF asked for $50 million a year and got $30 million, only $5 million of which is guaranteed; the rest is merely authorized. To make up the difference, Lipson says, advocates will have to hound the appropriations committees each year to get the money to fund research into things like alternatives to the toxic fumigant methyl bromide, which varieties of vegetables are best suited to organic production and generally making organic farming more productive and profitable.

    The discrepancy between funding for organics research and conventional ag research doesn't mirror reality, Lipson says. "Our dedicated share is on the order of 1 percent—which is better than zero, which is where we were at the turn of the century," he says. "But the organic share of the U.S. food market is shooting past 3 percent already this year, and this time next year it'll be 4 percent, so the incremental raises in research are not growing as fast as the demand is."

    Conservation Wasted

    Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm in Yolo County and president of CAFF, sees something she likes in this Farm Bill, and it's not what one might expect to hear from an organic farmer with sterling lefty credentials who might be forgiven for wanting a little piece of the Uncle Sugar pie. She likes the fact that it relies on market forces.

    "You could look at this as one step away from those traditional subsidies where the check goes directly to the farmer, and instead what they're trying to do is encourage the public to perhaps eat more California fruits and vegetables using various mechanisms," Redmond says. "The important programs in this $1.5 billion try to build the market for those crops, which is in some ways a much healthier way to support those fruit and vegetable farmers. It's indirect, but it doesn't make those farmers welfare recipients. Those farms have to sink or swim on the basis of their quality."

    Some $500 million is going to help bring more fruits and vegetables to schools, which is a good thing. Yet Redmond, like Hamerschlag, Lipson and others, is very disappointed by one aspect of the Farm Bill headed for the House floor: its approach to conservation.

    Good ecological practices all require more labor and therefore a financial commitment that many farmers are not able to meet. Stewardship programs designed to compensate farmers for good practices have been written into the Farm Bill since 1985. But without mandatory funding they're susceptible to cuts each year.

    Marcy Coburn of the Ecological Farming Association in Watsonville points out that of the $1 billion given to California rice and cotton farmers between the years of 2003–2006, only $64 million was allocated to conservation efforts.

    "For a really long time anyone doing any ecological work has been ignored—they get nothing in return," she says. "We need to increase conservatino funding in California and reduce commodity payments if we want to address the fundamentally negative impacts of commodity programs."

    Stewardship programs are not just underfunded; they're oversubscribed. In 2004, three out of every four farmers and ranchers applying to participate in Farm Bill conservation programs were rejected due to lack of funds, according to the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

    The demand is clearly there, so the current version of the Farm Bill retains conservation programs. But it shifts resources to big livestock farmers and away from specialty crop farmers.

    Hamerschlag explains that one California-friendly program, the Conservation Security Program (CSP), provides funding to farmers who are already at a base level of good stewardship—using cover crops, for instance—and gives them incentives to do further improvements.

    "The chairman [of the Ag committee] basically took $3 billion out of that program and put it into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is available to all farmers no matter how bad your practices are," Hamerschlag says. "A lot of it goes to manure ponds on big [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations]. Sixty percent of EQIP goes to animal agriculture, so there's a lot more political support for it than for CSP."

    Seeds of Change

    The final 2007 Farm Bill could look much different from the one passed out of committee last week. For one thing, it has yet to be debated on the House floor. And the Senate Agriculture Committee still hasn't come out with its version of the bill.

    Hamerschlag says the Senate's bill is likely to be far more progressive than the House version, and more California-friendly—"which is ironic, considering it's an Iowan, Tom Harkin, who chairs it."

    The Farm Bill will probably never catch up to the progressive left coast, where attitudes about food and food production are always at least a decade ahead of the rest of the country. Broz, of Live Earth Farm, knows firsthand just how cutting-edge those attitudes are. In the last year, membership in his Community Supported Agriculture operation has leaped from 500 to 600. He actually has a waiting list now—proof to him that the people are leading the way to a new food system.

    "Food is just the foundation of a culture," he says. "In this country I think maybe we don't have so much of a food culture as in other countries. But there's definitely a movement afoot."

    DESCRIPTION

    Photograph by Carlie Statsky
    Conservation-minded: Marcy Coburn of the Ecological Farming Association wants to see more money dedicated to stewardship programs for small farms.


    Send a letter to the editor about this story.






    blank