March 24, 2008

paging califloridans

This is one of those pieces of legislative arcana that has the potential to be bizarrely meaningful in the lives of many people. It's called Farm Flex, and Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, wrote about it in the NY Times about a month ago. (I'm late. Shut up.) Our current farm policy, which is massively fucked up in about 15 dimensions, directly subsidizes commodity growers for I think 5 crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. I'm going to resist the intense temptation to complain about these subsidies in ways irrelevant to the topic at hand, and note instead that various other crops are subsidized indirectly (for example, by building expensive dams that provide cheap water - now go read Cadillac Desert). The direct subsidy crops, though, carry a specific penalty if you switch off commodities to, say, grow fruits and vegetables. A farmer who makes that switch has 3 costs: loss of the subsidy for the acres in question; a fine based on the value of the crops grown; and future loss of the subsidy for the acres in question.

The first cost is reasonable, even in crazy commodity-subsidy world: if you're not growing commodities, it makes sense not to be subsidized to grow commodities. But the second cost makes it very difficult for farmers who switch to make any money, and the third cost is a huge future risk. Farmers who would switch are mostly not in viable parts of the country for large-scale production to compete with, say, California - the climate in Iowa wouldn't work - so they'd be supplying local markets. That's what makes this a nationally meaningful policy issue. There's a bill - Farm Flex - to cut out the second and third penalties, to make it more possible for farmers to try food production, and it's a good bill. It's pretty dumb that the federal government is actively protecting large-scale ultra-commercial growers just at the time when people are really interested in local food.

The opponents to Farm Flex are mostly California/Florida-based businesses, which makes it your job, my California/Florida-based friends, to call your member of Congress, or, if the bill makes it to the Senate, your Senator. Texans should also call. And everyone else.

You can know when that's happened by looking at this nifty widget, which I just discovered. (OK, never mind, the widget isn't working. You'll just have to google H.R. 1371 yourself.)

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