What Could the Farm Bill Accomplish?

Kari Hamerschlag has a post up about the upcoming Farm Bill and its potential to move money away from large scale industrial agriculture and towards smaller producers. For most small farmers producing for local markets, the idea is heady - after all, the economics agriculture are tenuous for many of us - we get all of the burdens of regulation without any of the economies of scale that accompany large scale agriculture. Most small producers are driven, then, to serve communities that can pay, rather than necessarily their poorer rural neighbors (although all of us do some of that too). We then get accused of being elitist (as I've written about before),
usually with the word "arugula" mentioned somewhere (I've never fully grasped why a perfectly nice green, fast growing, easy to grow plant like arugula is actually a code word for "rich asshole" - why not "mustard greens" or "kale?")

The accusation that local food is elitist is actually a product of the industrial food infrastructure - that is, the requirements of an industrial food system, the presumption that the basic structure of food production should be industrialized is what makes the price of good food higher. The accusation that local food isn't "serious" because it costs more is an accusation in bad faith - the reason it costs more is because the same system makes it cost more.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing in favor of farmers' not getting a fair price for their food, but consider the cost of a gallon of milk. I can produce a gallon of milk from my barn for about $2.40 in hay, grain, amortized goat costs, and a tiny chunk of my mortgage payment. Since my milk is mostly grass during the summer, that means with a reasonable markup, I could produce a gallon of milk for 3.50, and make a fair profit. That's not too bad - my local Stewarts is advertising milk for 3.80 per gallon, so I could sell a few gallons to my neighbors and offset some feed costs, without costing them more, maybe even save them some pennies. It goes without saying, also that my goat's milk tastes better (sorry, but it does, and everyone thinks so), is organic, probably came from animals with better lives, and would be fresher than the milk in the store.

My friend Judy, who runs a dairy, observes that it costs $9 for her to produce a gallon of goat's milk. Now why the difference? Why does it cost her $9, which isn't even remotely competetive and me $2.40? Well the main difference is that she had to get set up to sell her goat's milk. She had to put in a bulk tank, build a barn to specifications, put in the second septic system between the milk room and the barn septic, add restroom facilities (even though her house bathroom is three steps away), and pay 16,000 dollars for pasteurizer.

As I'm adding up my costs, I don't have to count any of those things. I can amortize my steel milking pail and the quart mason jars I use, but that won't add but pennies. I can pasteurize my milk - after all, raising milk to a particular temperature and holding it there for a couple of minutes isn't rocket science, and a $4 dairy thermometer works fine, along with a stainless steel pot (let's not even ask whether I can sell it raw).

Of course, the big difference is that Judy *can* legally sell her milk, and I can't. In order to sell milk, I'd have to build the milking parlor, get the bulk tank, run power to the barn, and buy the 16K pasteurizer. Nevermind that for someone milking 6 does, this is ridiculous overkill - them's the rules. And look, my organic milk now costs $9 gallon - and gee, isn't that elitist, to think that ordinary people can afford organic *milk!?!*

Now I can hear the protests - after all, all this stuff exists in the name of progress and food safety, right? Well, the problem with that is that if you need all this stuff for milk to be produced safely, you have to first explain away the fact that the French are all still alive ;-). Because it is perfectly evident that it is possible for someone to hand milk six cows in a milking parlor without electricity or running water, in a building built 400 years ago and to the standards of that day, to take it from the cow and cool it in a bucket of water from a spring, and sell some of it directly to consumers who do not die, and indeed, go on to have lifespans longer than our own and who spend less per year on illness and health costs

So the idea of some of the many billions that the USDA throws around going to local producers as Hamerschlag suggests is pretty cool in some respects. That said, however, among the actual farmers I know, there's a lot of ambivalence about subsidies and programs that actually work to our benefit - a lot of times the seeming generosity comes with some downsides like new levels of scrutiny and regulation that make it harder, not easier in the net. In many cases policies that seem to favor the small and local are actually more easily taken advantage of by the large and industrial.

That's not an argument wholly against Hamerschlag, but it is a cautionary note - most small farmers I know would love to see the barriers and benefits shifted off an un-level playing field. They are less sure that they want to engaged the USDA's full attention ;-).

Hamerschlag proposes the following:

Increasing support for local aggregation, processing and distribution so that farmers can more easily sell healthy food, including locally raised and processed meat, directly to schools, hospitals, stores and restaurants.

Enabling schools to use more of their federal food funding to buy fresh, local foods. Public schools could opt to use up to 15 percent of their school lunch commodity dollars for buying foods from local farmers and ranchers, instead of through the U.S.
Department of Agriculture's nationalized commodity food program.

Improving the diets of food stamp recipients and low-income seniors by making it easier for them to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs, and other direct food marketing services, putting more money in the pockets of local farmers and generating additional economic activity in nearby business districts.

Diversifying and increasing the production of healthy and sustainable food by increasing funding for the Specialty Crop Block Grant program and increasing access to credit, crop insurance, and other support for organic producers, diversified operations, smaller-scale and beginning farmers.

All of these things could be good - particularly a program that upped the percentage of SNAP and WIC foods that could come from local resources (I've always thought that the elegant simplicity of Michael Pollan's proposal that WIC and SNAP dollars should pay double at farmer's markets worked to everyone's advantage). Beginning farmer programs also are good. But I wonder if we're coming at this from the correct end - what the Farm Bill and the USDA as a whole have done over the years is radiically re-shape the way Americans eat - ostensibly, of course, it was about agriculture, but really it has been at least as much about changing how we consume. Perhaps that's the end of this we need to focus on.

As much as I'm in favor of working with schools to bring in local produce, what most farmers I know that have done so have found is that because schools are not set up to process produce themselves, what ends up happening is that our "local" food gets transported to a distant processing plant and then back to the school - establishing both the infrastructure to deal with crops closer to home and also giving schools the capacity to use foods in states nearer to their actual origin (you would not believe what a carrot has to go through to show up on a school system plate). One wonders if perhaps what's needed most is to shift the expectations of school systems and school children so that they recognize the value of a carrot piece that isn't encased in plastic, waffle shaped and three days old.

Supporting an increase in processing facilities that support small scale producers of all kinds could be of huge benefit - community kitchens that support small-scale producers, local slaughter infrastructure and when possible, local processing infrastructure for institutions like schools and hospitals - but the question becomes, if we smaller local producers have to specialize and narrow our focus in order to grow precisely the kinds of vegetables that run best through processing equipment so they can be bagged and shipped to school children, are we still doing what really matters - producing the diverse crops that grow best and meet our community needs?

I'm not opposed to any of these programs, and generally, I think anything that keeps small farmers in business or helps create new ones is good - but if the larger goal is for small farmers to be producing a larger chunk of our food, which I think it is, we have to look down the road towards that larger goal. It may be that what we need most are resources devoted to shifting the American diet to the kinds of foods that grow best around them. If there's a place for the USDA, which after all, has helped shape America's diet into one that is demonstrably bad for us, it might be there - in putting resources away from big ag, and towards eaters, as much as farmers, and towards helping people change their expectations about food. So much of what we do is focused on what farmers grow - but farmers respond to what eaters eat, and as I've argued before, farmers alone cannot transform their agriculture - it starts at the table.


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It sure seems like the USDA needs to be banned from addressing any producer that produces less than 100,000 servings a year of any food or food related item.

That way, an egg or milk producers with 250 laying hens or produces less than 300 pounds of milk a day would be 'free', as long as there are no patterns of sick customers, which would hamper sales, I would think.

The problem I see with the school lunch changes you recommend are similar to the general supercenter market place -- retreating from institutionalized food preparation takes changing the focus of family life from fashionable recreation and generation of money to depict success. This would be a good thing, I think, once it happens.

But it is a pile of sticks, to most people. Pull out the "microwave according to the box" food preparation paradigm, and you challenge the "but the TV shows this new toy/game/car I should be enjoying; I won't be enjoying myself if I don't have the toy/game/car." And you challenge the "the neighbors won't think I am successful in terms of money earned if I eat like a peasant." Or hang your clothes in the back yard, keep a couple chickens, or tear up the front yard for a vegetable garden. The presence of a 'peasant' abode likely will cost the neighbors thousands of dollars, each, in resale value on their homes, because the neighborhood begins to look like it is 'declining'.

All this, including challenging "job satisfaction" no longer measured in salary and career advancement, is part of the problem of the three day old, waffled carrot. Not to mention changing school lunchroom hiring practices to assure food handlers actually, um, know how to prepare food.

you have to first explain away the fact that the French are all still alive ;-). Because it is perfectly evident that it is possible for someone to hand milk six cows in a milking parlor without electricity or running water, in a building built 400 years ago and to the standards of that day, to take it from the cow and cool it in a bucket of water from a spring, and sell some of it directly to consumers who do not die,

Are you suggesting that that is the way French farms function today ???? I'm afraid that my neighbors who run a family dairy farm in a small French mountain village enjoy all the modern commodities of electricity, electric milking machines, a modern, renovated building that respects legal specifications, tanks and pasteurizing machines. And they definitely have more than six??? animals...

I may have misread you, but your description of French farming makes it sound as if we were stuck in the middle-ages.

I spend a lot of time arguing against the ignorant condescending American stereotype ... please don't give additional fodder to it.

By Mountainmums (not verified) on 30 Jan 2012 #permalink

It is unfortunate that the USDA codes are suited only to the industrial model of food production. The culprit isn't just how industrial farms make food, though, but also how the average American consumer buys food. Commercial grocers keep consumers detached from the source of their food, and often food is processed through middlemen, meaning that the productâs label doesnât tell shoppers anything about the farmer who actually grew the food. This aspect was alluded to here and there in the article above (multiple mentions of âfarmerâs marketsâ etc.), but its impact on the system wasnât addressed. Iâd like to give an example of its importance in my own experience as a consumer of raw milk.

Here in Colorado, the state forbids selling raw milk, but allows people to consume raw milk from cows they own. As a result, raw dairies have sprung up that allow consumers to purchase a share in their herd and to pay âboarding feesâ (i.e. the price of feeding, milking cows, distributing milk) in exchange for a regular allotment of milk. Itâs pretty much an end run around the law, but the current system has some benefits. I found out about my raw dairy by stopping by their stand in the local farmerâs market, chatting with them, and taking a pamphlet home. Before I committed myself to buying a share, I did research online, weighed the risks and benefits, and educated myself on what to do with the milk. Now I make yogurt regularly and cheese occasionally, and I can taste the difference between milk thatâs sour in a healthy-and-potentially-useful way, and milk thatâs just plain bad.

I never would have gotten all of this education if I had just discovered a jar of raw milk next to the pasteurized cartons at the grocery store. I know milk is an extreme example and things like produce are much safer, but I still think that there should be more rigorous standards for the what I buy in a store as compared to the things I buy direct from a farmer. Even just learning her name and shaking her hand provides a level of trust and accountability that offsets the risk that comes with her produce being less tightly controlled by the government. Better than simply removing restrictions for some or all farmers would be for the code to recognize the non-industrial parts of our food system as legitimate and to promote education alongside of intelligent, non-invasive standards.

You are so right! For the last couple years, I have been trying just to DONATE my garden produce to the local food bank -- but people won't eat "ugly food"! As you say - if it's not crinkle cut(let alone if it is slightly irregular or has any brown edges), it's considered garbage. And when I tried to donate my free range eggs to a group that does free meals in town, they said their rule is that they can give them away but not cook with them for the meal! It's just nuts. So part of what must be changed is that people need to become more acquainted with real food. It's gonna be a slow process, and frankly I don't think we have the time.

It makes me crazy that there are some that think of buying food from neighboring farms as elitist! To my mind what could possibly be more opposite from elitism than buying wholesome food from your hard working neighbors? I fear that simply cooking from scratch is coming to be seen as something only for the wealthy as well.

Two other thoughts, rather less funny than the last: my town's Farmer's Market does accept SNAP benefits, by means of buying tokens from a central point, which all of the vendors accept. Any amount above $10 that a patron buys in tokens will be matched with a grant-funded additional $10 in tokens. Very, very nice program.

The carrot sticks in my children's school can be tied into knots without breaking. Do I really want them eating food like that???

Although in some ways Canadian regs seem slightly more sane, i others they are just nuts. I read Joel Salatin's books about processing chickens on the farm and my mind boggled - NO meat can be sold here without it being inspected and processed at the butcher's. Fortunately, we do have a lot of local processors, but it means that you can't sell a few chickens - you need a truckload to make it worthwhile.

We do have meat animals (a few sheep & a steer each year) butchered (properly) and we sell the meat direct to customers. The health inspector came and checked us out: we have to have a separate freezer for the for sale meat, which seems reasonable enough, and it has to be marked properly by the butcher, which is fine, that's no big deal. However, when she was here for my last routine inspection she was most distressed to find that my 'for sale only' freezer is not *in a separate room*. According to the regs, food for sale must be kept separate from the rest of the household - ok, fair enough, if you are selling veggies or baked goods or whatever, keep 'em separate from household stuff so nothing gets mixed up. But honestly - it's in a *separate freezer*. How exactly is having *one more door to go through* going to ensure the meat doesn't get contaminated going from butcher to home to freezer to cooler to customer? She couldn't answer my question, and didn't shut me down but did say she was going to look into the rules. She wasn't real happy to find out that we store eggs for sale in the fridge along with everything else, either. Not that I can see how our jars of ketchup and tupperware containers of leftovers are going to contaminate the eggs we washed & packaged ...
I want to comply with the rules that keep my customers safe. I won't sell live lamb for people to butcher right here on my property or to take home and slaughter in their backyard (without an inspection, if they don't know what to look for and there was something wrong with the meat that I'd missed, then they could get ill and I'd be in trouble and they'd be sick and it'd be my fault and that'd be bad) ... I'll wash the eggs and keep them cold and keep the meat frozen and tag the animals so we know where they came from ... but honestly, at some point the rules just get dumb.

It's all about risk mitigation. Where's common sense when you need it?

Mountainmums, no, apologies if I seem to, but such dairies do exist, or did no more than a decade ago, because I visited several of them - very small rural dairies mostly operating very traditionally. They are both legal and were extant until quite recently.

People really need to stop with the "well in France they sell raw milk and the French live longer than we do!" argument. France has something like TRIPLE our rate of foodborne illness in outbreaks associated with dairy. And I sincerely doubt that the long life is due in any part to the lack of pasteurization of some French milk - in fact it seems possible that if anything the French would live even longer if they really got into food safety without changing anything else.

I get where you're coming from, and I wish we had more sensible regulations in place to assure food safety while simultaneously supporting the small- and tiny-scale farmer. But it is important to also face facts about the risks to consumers so that consumers can make that educated choice.

I think some of the behaviors and attitudes of the consumers will change in the next few years due to peak oil. As oil becomes scarce, everything will become much more expensive, which will force people to change their ways. There will be a lot less keeping up with the Jonses and a lot more locally centered activity. I think that some regulation and kooky rules will probably go out the window because people simply won't be able to function with it. At some point, it will become fashionable or trendy to grow your own and eat locally.

Just because I'm waiting on the washing machine to finish, and am out of reading material, I searched on food borne illness in France and came up with data cited on Wikipedia (yes, I know, Wikipedia?, But the entry seems to have valid citations.)

"In the United States, using FoodNet data from 2000â2007, the CDCP estimated there were 47.8 million foodborne illnesses (16,000 cases for 100,000 inhabitants): [39]

127,839 were hospitalized (43 per 100,000 inhabitants);
3,037 people died (1.0 per 100,000 inhabitants.)."

For France:

In France, for 750,000 cases (1,210 per 100,000 inhabitants):

70,000 people consulted in the emergency department of an hospital (113 per 100,000 inhabitants.);
113,000 people were hospitalized (24 per 100,000 inhabitants);
400 people died (0.9 per 100,000 inhabitants).

So, off hand, it seems the US had 16,000 cases of reported food poisoning per 100K residents, versus France's 1,210 per 100K resident.....almost 1/13th the US rate.

I do also notice that the US' main food borne pathogen is Norovirus, while in France it's Salmonella and things like Listeria are higher up the French list.... Listeria being a dairy and meat problem. Maybe raw dairy is indeed a bigger problem in France compared to the US.

Still, without digging deeper, I can't tell what kinds of food are most likely infected in the US versus in France, but the overall infection rate in France is less than one thirteenth the US' one ... Maybe the US has a better reporting rate, but still, that's a HUGE difference in food borne illness.

I'd read further, but it's been decades since I studied French or used it and thus, reading that French source material is slow going for me.

Another thing I do know, however, is that the French visit their food stores, butchers, bakers, etc. very often. Almost daily food shopping is the norm, while in the US food is stuffed in the fridge and left for days on end. Perhaps that further explains our much higher rates of food borne illness here too.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 31 Jan 2012 #permalink

Now I can hear the protests - after all, all this stuff exists in the name of progress and food safety, right? Well, the problem with that is that if you need all this stuff for milk to be produced safely, you have to first explain away the fact that the French are all still alive ;-).

I guess this was supposed to be flip but that's an illogical statement. We had no regulation and no pasteurization of dairy until relatively recently in human history and we didn't all die off. Listeria is a bitch but it's not an unstoppable pandemic, it's a preventable contamination.

I think it would be better to compare the rates of and types of contamination from dairies that would not meet american FDA standards, to dairies that would. This may be a challenge. It sounds like much of the EU allows for both kinds of dairies so you can't just look at general numbers overall. If small, medium and large dairies all have approximately the same rates of contamination, regardless of whether they would or wouldn't meet the FDA's standard, then we have to ask ourselves if those standards are reasonable and the answer is likely no.

Then you have to ask whether a dairy that is run with just a bucket, thermometer, and a small number of goats is prepared to deal with the death of a customer, should contamination happen. If the thermometer isn't accurate or the buckets, bottles and equipment not cleaned properly, there's a higher risk of contamination. We cannot just assume that any small scale farmer who wants to sell milk is equally fastidious and concerned with people's wellbeing. It's not an argument to say that *you* are careful, and *you* care about customers. We don't set up regulations based on the best case scenario. The regulations are in place to prevent fraud and harm, either unintentional or malicious.

So the real issue comes down to setting up regulations that scale down to small farmer size to protect customers AND the dairy (I'm sure that being required to buy a reliable thermometer is more affordable than being sued and losing your farm). Since this is science blogs, I would love to see a more scientific approach to this topic.

I usually hear kale actually... all the hipsters and such are like "and I love kale!" and there's TONS of bumper stickers/bags/etc. that say "EAT MORE KALE".

I've yet to hear arugula. :-P

Marnie, there is no evidence that I'm aware of that there's any more risk in not cleaning something properly in a tiny dairy or a large dairy. Implicit in this is that both kinds of dairies need to give equal attention to cleanliness and safety. In much of Europe, testing and regular inspection are the tools used, and they've been effective. No one said that no regulation should be involved, or implied most of the things you've suggested - the point is that it is perfectly possible to regulate in scale-accessible ways.