Lookout 2008-09

by Christian Freymeyer

A Farming Utopia: Embracing Local-to-Local Agriculture

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IT WAS FITTINGLY IRONIC THAT SUCH A QUAINT BUILDING WAS THE SITE OF SOUTHHAMPTON COUNTY'S FARM SERVICE CENTER. Amid the absence of hustle and bustle, a modest brick building sat in “downtown” Courtland, Virginia. No more than three cars were in the parking lot when I pulled in, and although it didn’t look like much, this building has been responsible for dolling out over $114,723,487 of taxpayer money since 2000.

Inside, the scene was something like a high school office or a small business–a slew of half-empty cubicles in the middle, resembling the bullpen of an old newsroom, and, of course, two or three offices reserved for the bigwigs of the place. A soft, southern accent greeted me as I walked in to the building. Excitement filled the voice, making me wonder how many visitors they actually get. When I sat down with John Rudy, County Executive Director, he presented himself as a kind, engaged man, not one responsible for allocating millions of dollars a year to the entire county of Southampton. Walking into the office, I figured that I was ready to tackle the farm bill and how its perceived to favor big agribusiness over small and sustainable farmers.

Then, Mr. Rudy hit me with the simple fact that the farmers here in Southampton County aren’t really part of the agribusiness culture. “Most of the farmers here plant less than a thousand acres. Compare that to farmers in the Mid-west who are planting hundreds of thousands of acres,” he explained as we were discussing the role of subsidies. “Farmers here are by no means rich. These subsides help them gain a decent quality of life,” Mr. Rudy said, almost as if he were defending the farmers. Maybe Southampton County was some sort of agriculture utopia—a place where agribusiness hasn’t come in and taken over, a place lobbyists aren’t even thinking about when they push their agenda in Washington. Subsidies, however, are an interesting proposition: In essence the government places a monetary value on a farmer’s existence. Mr. Rudy showed me a database put together by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). It compiles data from all 50 states and provides a county-by-county breakdown showing where and to whom each dollar of subsidies goes. In 2004, for example, Five Ash Partnership took home $335,576 in USDA subsidies, the most in Southampton County. This, however, is by no means the bottom line. Once you factor in fuel, fertilizer, payroll, land mortgage, and all the other expenses that go into farming, the pay looks a lot less attractive. These farmers are working long hours for below-par pay so that the American consumer can buy moderately priced food in their grocery store.

By reputation, the Farm Bill is a complex piece of legislation written. Its 628 pages were developed, in part, by congressmen and senators who represent states where big agribusiness is most prevalent. The bill dates back to the 1930s. It was initiated during the Great Depression to assist dust-bowl farmers who had been shocked by the economic crisis, not to mention one of the worst droughts in near history.

The idea was to give these farmers a minimum payment for crops, and incentives to not farm their land, the intended outcome being a reigning in of overproduction and providing farmers with a suitable wage.
As Mr. Rudy explains it, subsidies are a “safety-net” for farmers in case crop prices drastically fall due to a number of variables, with overproduction and poor weather cycles being the main factors. Prices are put in place for a set number of commodity crops. These are staple crops that are grown in great abundance such as wheat, soybean, peanuts, and corn. If the market price dips below the price set by Washington, then the farmer is entitled to the difference in the form of a subsidy.

However, the Farm Bill has evolved over the years and has come to include a multitude of programs including school nutrition and food stamp assistance. And the subsidies that were originated to benefit small farmers and their families have evolved into a sort of bonus for big agribusinesses that are planting millions of acres of land. The fact is most farming is done by agribusinesses that are in bed with lobbyists and lawmakers in Washington D.C. No longer do small family farmers dominate the agriculture trade. In the 1930s, there were six million small and diverse farms in the U.S. and about 25 percent of the population lived on them. In 1997, the last time a farm census was taken, 157,000 large business-farms were responsible for 72 percent of the nation's farm sales. These farms averaged profits of $900,000 per farm. Based on statistics provided by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-partisan accountability organization, it seems that the Farm Bill could, in some respects, be considered a type of corporate welfare, a bill that disregards the needs of farmers who are struggling to get by.

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