A program that puts billions of dollars in the pockets of farmers whether or not they plant a crop may disappear with hardly a protest from farm groups and the politicians who look out for their interests.
The Senate is expected to begin debate this week on a five-year farm and food aid bill that would save $9.3 billion by ending direct payments to farmers and replacing them with subsidized insurance programs for when the weather turns bad or prices go south.
The details have yet to be worked out. But there’s rare agreement that fixed annual subsidies of $5 billion a year for farmers are no longer feasible when budgets are tight and farmers in general are enjoying record prosperity.
About 80 percent of the bill’s half-trillion-dollar cost over the next five years represents nutrition programs, primarily food stamps that go to some 46 million people. About $100 billion would be devoted to crop subsidies and other farm programs.
The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee last month approved a bill that would save $23 billion over the next decade by ending direct payments and consolidating other programs. The bill would strengthen the subsidized crop insurance program and create a program to compensate farmers for smaller, or “shallow,” revenue losses, based on a five-year average, for acres actually planted.
Getting a bill to the president’s desk will be a challenge. Most of the bill’s spending is on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, at an annual cost now of about $75 billion. The Republican-led House is looking for greater cuts to this program than the Democratic Senate will accept.
The House also is more sympathetic to Southern rice and peanut farmers who say that the shallow-loss program would hurt them.
Today the government is releasing new nutrition standards for school meals that spell out dramatic changes, including slashing sodium, limiting calories and offering students a wider variety and larger portions of fruits and vegetables. These changes will raise the nutrition standards for meals for the first time in more than 15 years.
“When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home,” first lady Michelle Obama said in a statement. She is announcing the new standards today along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack..
Vilsack says this is a historic opportunity “to improve the quality and quantity of the school meal programs.”
The quality of school meals has been hotly debated for years because one-third of children in the USA are overweight or obese. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new nutrition standards for all food served in schools. The rules released today apply to school meals; regulations for other foods such those served in à la carte lines, vending machines and stores will come later.
The changes are designed to improve the health of nearly 32 million children who eat lunch at school every day and almost 11 million who eat breakfast.
At the supermarket, most shoppers are oblivious to a battle raging within U.S. agriculture and the Obama administration’s role in it. Two thriving but opposing sectors — organics and genetically engineered crops — have been warring on the farm, in the courts and in Washington.
Organic growers say that, without safeguards, their foods will be contaminated by genetically modified crops growing nearby. The genetic engineering industry argues that its way of farming is safe and should not be restricted in order to protect organic competitors.
Into that conflict comes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who for two years has been promising something revolutionary: finding a way for organic farms to coexist alongside the modified plants.
But in recent weeks, the administration has announced a trio of decisions that have clouded the future of organics and boosted the position of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Vilsack approved genetically modified alfalfa and a modified corn to be made into ethanol, and he gave limited approval to GE sugar beets.
The announcements were applauded by GE industry executives, who describe their crops as the farming of the future. But organics supporters were furious, saying their hopes that the Obama administration would protect their interests were dashed.
“It was boom, boom boom,” said Walter Robb, co-chief executive officer of Whole Foods Markets, a major player in organics. “These were deeply disappointing. They were such one-sided decisions.”
CORVALLIS, Ore. — For years, Tyler Jones, a livestock farmer here, avoided telling his grandfather how disillusioned he had become with industrial farming.
After all, his grandfather had worked closely with Earl L. Butz, the former federal secretary of agriculture who was known for saying, “Get big or get out.”
But several weeks before his grandfather died, Mr. Jones broached the subject. His grandfather surprised him. “You have to fix what Earl and I messed up,” Mr. Jones said his grandfather told him.
Now, Mr. Jones, 30, and his wife, Alicia, 27, are among an emerging group of people in their 20s and 30s who have chosen farming as a career. Many shun industrial, mechanized farming and list punk rock, Karl Marx and the food journalist Michael Pollan as their influences. The Joneses say they and their peers are succeeding because of Oregon’s farmer-foodie culture, which demands grass-fed and pasture-raised meats.
“People want to connect more than they can at their grocery store,” Ms. Jones said. “We had a couple who came down from Portland and asked if they could collect their own eggs. We said, ‘O.K., sure.’ They want to trust their producer, because there’s so little trust in food these days.”
Garry Stephenson, coordinator of the Small Farms Program at Oregon State University, said he had not seen so much interest among young people in decades. “It’s kind of exciting,”
Even as the broader economy falters amid signs of a weakening recovery, the nation’s agriculture sector is going strong, bolstered in part by a surge in exports, according to federal estimates of farm trade and income released on Tuesday.
The estimates confirm what economists have been saying for months: agriculture, which was generally not hit as hard by the recession as many other segments of the economy, remains a small bright spot going forward.
“We’re just having a robust rebound in the agricultural sector and promises of more growth,” Jason R. Henderson, vice president and economist at the Omaha branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said in a recent interview.
The estimates show that American farmers will ship $107.5 billion in agricultural products abroad in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. That is the second-highest amount ever, behind the record $115.3 billion in exports logged in 2008, when commodity prices soared as the global demand for agricultural products was helped by fast-growing economies in the developing world.
The firing of Shirley Sherrod — and the cowardice of Tom Vilsack
From everything I’ve read, I’m told that the firing of Shirley Sherrod, the once and probably future Agriculture Department official in Georgia, is about race or dishonest journalism or the vagaries of the 24-hour, incessant news cycle. Permit me a dissent. It is mostly about cowardice.
The coward in question is Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack who, even though from Iowa, fired Sherrod in a New York minute, and by extension and tradition –“The buck stops here,” remember? – Barack Obama himself. Where do they get off treating anyone so shabbily?
Sherrod was caught on video supposedly telling an NAACP meeting last March that she had not given a certain farmer the service he deserved because he was white. A clip of that speech made the rounds of right wing blogs and media outlets — Fox News, for instance — and in no time Vilsack ordered the woman canned. He moved with what would have been commendable dispatch had he first heard her side of the story, viewed the entire video and asked what its source was. The answers should have stopped him in his tracks.
The full video showed that Sherrod, after repressing some racial antipathy, treated the farmer with dignity and efficiency — and, anyway, the entire event took place more than 20 years ago. Had Vilsack seen the entire video, he would also have learned that Sherrod’s story had a moral: She learned that poverty, not race, is what mattered. Since this is America, it is God who taught her that.
But that full video was not shown by the right wing blogger Andrew Breitbart.
Release No. 0231.10
Secretary Vilsack, Obama Administration Officials, and Rural Energy Stakeholders Discuss Renewable Energy Opportunities During Clean Energy Forum
WASHINGTON, May 5, 2010 -Today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other administration officials joined rural stakeholders from across the country at a clean energy economy forum at the White House. The group discussed renewable energy opportunities for rural communities and the Obama Administration’s efforts to help rural America build a clean energy economy that creates jobs, reduces our dependence on foreign oil and enhances our position in the global economy. The Administration officials also had the opportunity to hear from farmers, ranchers and producers about their experiences in the emerging clean energy economy.
At the forum, Secretary Vilsack also noted that today marks the one year anniversary of President Obama’s Biofuels Directive and said that implementation of the renewable energy provisions of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (Farm Bill) continues to move forward rapidly.
"Renewable energy production is a key to sustainable economic development in rural America," Vilsack said. "We must rapidly escalate the production of biofuels to meet the 2022 Federal Renewable Fuels standard goal, and much of this biofuel will come from feedstocks produced by America’s farmers and ranchers.
Release No. 0174.10
Contact: Sandy Miller Hays (301) 504-1637
HONOLULU, April 7, 2010 – Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan today announced a series of public and private partnerships designed to help establish commercial production of advanced biofuels and other renewable energy systems in Hawaii for use by the Department of the Navy.
"Hawaii, with its semitropical climate, is among the states with the greatest potential to produce biomass," said Merrigan. "And, with its significant naval presence and its heavy reliance on imported fuels, Hawaii is a perfect location for growing biomass for the production of advanced biofuels and using the vast other renewable resources available to develop other advanced energy systems."
The announcement follows a day-long meeting here on Tuesday, April 6, with representatives of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Energy, the state government of Hawaii, the office of Senator Daniel K. Inouye, the University of Hawaii and others to discuss ways in which USDA could help the U.S. Navy move towards greater use of biofuels and the development of other renewable energy systems.
Guaranteed Loans Provided Through Recovery Act Funds Help Local Businesses and Supports the Nation’s Renewable Energy Strategy
WASHINGTON, February 16, 2010 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced $144 million in loan guarantees to assist 54 rural businesses through funding made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The funding is authorized through USDA Rural Development’s Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program. The program received $1.57 billion through the Act to help rural businesses stimulate economic development.
"A number of the Recovery Act projects announced today support the President’s comprehensive energy strategy announced earlier this month," said Vilsack. "Advancing biomass and biofuel production holds the potential to create green jobs, which is one of the many ways the Obama Administration and USDA are working to rebuild and revitalize rural America."
For example, in Hilo, Hawaii, Big Island Biodiesel, LLC, has been selected to receive a $5,000,000 loan guarantee through First Hawaiian Bank in Kahului to construct a $10 million, 2.64 million gallon per year biodiesel production plant in Keaau. The feedstock for this biodiesel plant will primarily be used cooking oil, and potentially jatropha and algae. More than one million gallons of used cooking oil and grease-trap oil will be diverted from Maui, Oahu, and Hawaii County landfills to produce the biodiesel. Hawaii has established an Alternative Fuel Standard (AFS) with the goal of providing 10 percent of highway fuel demand from alternate fuels by 2010, 15 percent by 2015, and 20 percent by 2020.