Allen Hance is Senior Policy Analyst and Director for the Agriculture and Food Policy Program, Northeast-Midwest Institute and project coordinator for the Farm and Food Policy Project, a national alliance of anti-hunger, conservation, rural development, and family farm organizations which seeks a more sustainable agriculture and food system for the United States. The following interview followed less than a week after the House approved the 2007 Farm Bill (231-to-191). The US Senate is expected to take it up in September, where Hance expects more fireworks. The interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. The interview aired on on my program, the V1047 Sunday Morning Magazine on WNSV-FM, Nashville, IL, August 5, 2007.
Q: What are the most controversial provisions of the farm bill as things stand now?
A: This has been a very different farm bill. I think what we’ve seen is that there is an unprecedented level of public interest in the 2007 Farm Bill. There has certainly been a great deal of attention focused on the so-called commodity programs, the farm subsidy programs that support a subset of crops that are grown in the United States, corn, soybeans, cotton, rice, wheat and a couple others that are the main so-called program crops. And there’s been a great deal of attention on the degree to which those crops, which are grown principally in the Midwest down into the Southeast, are subsidized as opposed to other sectors of agriculture. And on the more positive side there’s been a great deal of focus on the other component of the farm bill. The reality is that the farm bill is a huge, omnibus piece of legislation that embraces a whole lot more than farm programs.
Q: Focusing on your area of interest, what kind of things might be reflected in the farm bill?
A: There was a major amendment that was offered in the debate on the House floor last week which was a large-scale reform proposal that would’ve shifted dollars out of farm subsidy programs into the nutrition, rural development, energy, and conservation titles of the farm bill. That amendment failed but I think what’s important to recognize is that there were many, many significant changes that were made in the bill that was passed by the House. The farm bill, as I said earlier, deals with agriculture policy, it deals with food policy, rural development policy, energy development policy, and conservation policy. All those are rolled into this huge bill. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there were very significant increases that were long overdue for the food stamp program that were built into the House bill. There were new programs aimed at renewable energy development, not just ethanol and biofuels, but also in wind energy and other areas. There was an expansion of conservation programs that help farmers with either conserving environmentally sensitive lands or improving the efficiency of their farm operations. And there was a new set of programs to really help build new markets for farmers and, one area that we’ve done a lot of work on, rebuilding local and regional markets for agricultural product because we’re seeing an upsurge in consumer interest across the country in healthy, locally-produced foods and we think that’s a really important opportunity for farmers across the country.
Q: How do family farms do in comparison to larger corporate farms.
A: That’s been another real focus of a project I’ve been working on, to help provide the kind of safety net and the kind of tools that the small or mid-size family farmer need in order to compete effectively. And I think it’s a mixed story in terms of the farm bill. There were some steps taken towards limiting farm subsidy payments to very large farm operations, but they really didn’t go far enough. There is a cap placed on the size of farm operations and that was a million dollars adjusted gross income and if there’s a spouse also operating the farm, that goes to two million in adjusted gross income. That’s a pretty high level. It’s down from $2.5 million. In the view of many of the people I work with, it doesn’t yet create the shift that will target the resources to the family farm that are most in need of support.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: Just that I think many of us see this 2007 Farm Bill as a historic opportunity for really creating a farm bill that is also a healthy food bill, and that can do a lot to support farmers and ranchers and growers across the entire country and create better food choices for consumers.