Get your damn fruits and vegetables off my lawn.
March 1, 2008 3:21 PM   Subscribe

I’ve discovered that typically, a farmer who grows the forbidden fruits and vegetables on corn acreage not only has to give up his subsidy for the year on that acreage, he is also penalized the market value of the illicit crop, and runs the risk that those acres will be permanently ineligible for any subsidies in the future. (The penalties apply only to fruits and vegetables — if the farmer decides to grow another commodity crop, or even nothing at all, there’s no problem.) If you can't stop demand, curtail production. One farmer's view on the power of commodity crops. posted by Toekneesan (33 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Love the byline: Jack Hedin is a farmer.
posted by bookish at 3:30 PM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Interesting that the heavily subsidised crops soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton, not only require the most water but are also the most pesticide reliant.

Here in Australia the cotton crop uses a disproportionate amount of scarce water, it's grown in marginal land, and to criticise a cotton farmer is tantamount to slander on the national character.

We grow rice for some reason as well. Rice, in the driest continent in the middle of a massive drought. I believe they grow rice quite well in South East Asia where there's plenty of rain.

Drain that wetlands, this year's marginal rice crop is FAR more important than the long term survival ecosystem.
posted by mattoxic at 3:38 PM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Now it's different in the USA where there is no national health care, but I have been thinking for a while that if you must subsidize farming (which I'm not that keen on, but I realise the problems with ending it suddenly), then places like with state health care should at least restrict those subsidies to fruits and vegetables -- for the health implications alone. Healthy fruits and vegetables really are much more expensive - calorie for calorie - than many very unhealthy and primarily starchy foods. This was especially true where I was in Britain (where 8 sausage rolls were cheaper than a head of brocolli), but it's also true at the American and Canadian grocery stores I've dealt with. You can't try to convince people to eat better when a can of curry is 58p, and greens the cheapest dark green vegetable at 79p (on sale). Potatoes and carrots, they were cheap - but they are also starches.

So the NHS should convince the government to end all grain and dairy subsidies - and only local vegetables should get any.
posted by jb at 3:41 PM on March 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Great post, informative and enraging.
posted by languagehat at 4:24 PM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Good grief. Thanks for posting this.
posted by tiny crocodile at 4:32 PM on March 1, 2008

jb: on the face of it, that sounds like a really bright idea.
posted by Leon at 5:31 PM on March 1, 2008

They could always try burning some sheep.
posted by Artw at 5:38 PM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Big government, big problems
posted by parallax7d at 5:47 PM on March 1, 2008

Farm subsides have really gotten out of control. Their original purpose was to put an economic framework in place that could be used to manage the food supply, so that it didn't crash when the "business cycle" took a dive. That's not a bad goal, but it's really become a sort of political football due to outsize political power by rural areas.

On the other hand: Meh. There are much more compelling problems in the world.
posted by delmoi at 6:08 PM on March 1, 2008

jb: In the U.S. you could have much the same effect by controlling which foods you could use food stamps to pay for. We already prohibit using them to buy alcohol or tobacco products; I don't think it's really much of a stretch to go from there to banning provably unhealthy junk foods as well. I think some programs (WIC) already 'whitelist' certain foods as it is.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:27 PM on March 1, 2008

This has global consequences, by the way.

For example, in my country agriculture is unsubsidised. We produce free-range meat and dairy cheaply and efficiently, and it is a major export business. If your farmers paid the true cost of producing meat and dairy without subsidised corn feed, they wouldn't be even close to price-competitive, and my local farmers would be very happy indeed. From our perspective, your farm sector cheats, sucking off the US taxpayers' tit.

Your subsidised corn is also making you fat via HFCS and destroying the market for sugar exporters. It hurts Mexican and Central American farmers.

You also have the double whammy that meat and cheese and butter are cheap for you because your taxes are paying for feed, so your diet is rich in cheap saturated fat while you can't afford vegetables.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:30 PM on March 1, 2008 [5 favorites]

Grandpa grew the dryland wheat
Stood on his own two feet
His mind got incomplete
And they put him in a home

Daddy's cotton grows so high
Sucks the water table dry
The rolling sprinklers circle by
Bleedin' it to the bone

And I won't be here where there comes the day
It all dries up and blows away
I'd hang around just to see
But they never had much use for me in Levelland

--James McMurtry
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:32 PM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Although I agree with the author that penalties for planting non-commodity crops is something that needs to be reformed, I can't help but think that this article is indicative of why these reforms will probably never come. Blaming the subsidy problem and California, Texas and Florida is pointing out the splinter in your neighbor's eye but ignoring the log in your own. Why would any of the politicians from these states want to eliminate the only protection the crops grown in their districts have? If farmers in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, etc. want to, they could be able to jump in and out of the tomato, watermelon etc. business and if the market becomes oversaturated, they always have the option of just plowing the crop under and receiving their subsidy again, just for being in a commodity growing area, they need not even plant anything. For the most part, Californian, Floridian and Texan farmers have no such fall-back. If the farmers in the Mid-western states want to argue that they need subsidies, then how can they deny some sort of protection for farmers in other states?

Make noise to give up the subsidy, not just for the season you want to plant something different, but always, and then there may be some compromise. Otherwise, the finger-pointing is just going to continue.
posted by roquetuen at 6:33 PM on March 1, 2008

ummm... so why should farmers participating in a federal program subsidizing ( and regulating) staple crops be allowed to rent that land to boutique agriculture without penalty?

these penalties would be a consequence of any federal regulation of agriculture. the problem is that the "Farm Bill" is bought and paid for by ConAgra, ADM, Carhart, etc...

Why does everyone become a libertarian when some gentleman farmer complains about federal regulation? I blame Thomas Jefferson.
posted by geos at 6:43 PM on March 1, 2008

The E.U. (to the limit of my one course on E.U governance) was created originally around the agriculture subsidy programs in the various member countries. /side line
posted by acro at 6:48 PM on March 1, 2008

roquetuen makes a good point. Essentially, this article is whining because if the Author were to grow the food he wants the government would stop giving free money too the landowners. Well, why shouldn't they? I mean, if the landowner wants free money that in part comes from tax revenue from Florida and California, why shouldn't they abide by rules put in place partly by those states?

If he is really passionate about this, he can buy the land and convert it into non-subsidized land. The value would go down, sure, but it's not like he's really entitled to free government money for doing whatever he wants.
posted by delmoi at 7:13 PM on March 1, 2008

The problem is that the use of a few acres effects an entire farm's economics. And that there is a severe penalty for using those acres for fruits and vegetables. Not just a loss of subsidy on those few acres, and the threat of being excluded from all commodity markets in the future, but a stiff penalty taking all revenue from the that crop. It is not only an unfair market practice, it's unhealthy for agriculture and us.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:42 PM on March 1, 2008

H.R.2419 Farm Bill Extension Act of 2007
To provide for the continuation of agricultural programs through fiscal year 2012, and for other purposes.
posted by jaronson at 8:00 PM on March 1, 2008

Toekneesan makes an excellent point: It's not just about being able to opt out of the system; once you opt out, any money made from the crops you chose to grow is taken as penalties.

This is bullshit. Keeping people from growing food they want to grow on the land is stupid. The pesticides and transportation involved in running the entire midwest on commodity crops is completely dependent on a ready supply of cheap petroleum (which seems to be fast disappearing), while the monocropping practices deplete the soil and pesticides poison the land. The movement towards local food is a public response to the stupidity of the current regime - to rebuild the tie between people and their landbase and make our culture more sustainable.

Mr. Hedin won't be making much money for now, but when the current system tanks, people will be flocking to people like him to learn how to build something new.
posted by kaibutsu at 9:06 PM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

From Michael Pollan's book linked above, US farm subsidies used to be determined with a quota support system so that even in bad years farmers would be paid enough to keep growing, and not go broke. In the 70s this was replaced with a system that paid per unit regardless, propping up farmers in bounty years and in lower years, pushing down the price of grain, pushing farmers to plant every square inch of dirt.
I don't think the people who thought it up did it to be evil, they just wanted to increase grain and maize production, but the outcome is over-farmed land and a system where it is cheaper to feed cows corn than grass (and recently swapping food corn for ethanol).
In Australia we don't have the political history, and most of our cows and sheep eat grass, but there is an insidious idea that the regulated, commodified way of raising animals on feedlots is the future, so we have government agencies promoting a feedlot cattle industry, even though the economics of it here are marginal.
It is depressing that a pound of beef raised in a shit filled feedlot in eastern America can be cheaper than a grass fed Wyoming cow, to 'support' the corn farmers.
End first world farming subsidies and nobody will go hungry, taxes will go down (well, food prices might rise a bit) and we will stop making our farmers treat our land and livestock like a limited resource to be exploited as soon as possible. And the developing world will find a viable market for their crops.
posted by bystander at 4:16 AM on March 2, 2008

So he does not get free money anymore? Does he at least get a camera?
posted by bh at 4:30 AM on March 2, 2008

in the context of the US agenda towards 'Free Trade' and the 'Free Market', (via the IMF, WTO in other countries) this makes even less sense. !!

and to the haters above, The issue doesn't seem to be the suspension of subsides relating to that land, I"M sure they expected that, the issue is that you should be PENALISED for attempting to participate in the 'Free Market'.
posted by mary8nne at 5:12 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

The invisible hand tilling the soil.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:22 AM on March 2, 2008

Excellent post Toekneesan, what an outrage it is reading Jack Hedin's painfully interesting article. Thanks for the education. Wish there were some suggestion about what readers could do.
posted by nickyskye at 7:28 AM on March 2, 2008

Write your congress people and tell them to support changes to H.R.2419, linked above by jaronson, that support sustainable local agriculture. The bill as it stands will make it harder to purchase and sell locally grown food. Let them know that the ability to do so without market handicaps is important to you, and they should rewrite the bill to give local markets and sustainable producers a fair shake.
posted by Toekneesan at 1:31 PM on March 2, 2008

The obvious suggestion to what readers can do is to contact your congresscritters and let them know that the rules in the Farm Bill aren't good for Americans, are anathema to what America is supposed to be about:
- restricting free trade
- restricting growth of small, entrepreneurial farming enterprises
- giving unfair competitive edge to big agribusiness that truly needs no assistance in the marketplace
- restricting Americans' access to a healthy variety of farmed foods
- restricting the poorest Americans' diets even further because subsidies falsely alter the market and have created a situation in which the cheapest foods are the least healthy
- increasing our dependence on foreign oil, as locally sourced products are less available, meaning more food miles for less value for the majority of Americans
- restricting innovation and progress in farming, holding 21st century America hostage to agricultural ideas from the 1970s.
posted by Dreama at 1:40 PM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Barbra Kingslover's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year in Food

Slight nitpick: Kingsolver's book is actually Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, not Mineral.
posted by kayjay at 2:03 PM on March 2, 2008

Why does everyone become a libertarian when some gentleman farmer complains about federal regulation? I blame Thomas Jefferson.

What in the hell are you talking about? Dude I just want to go to the supermarket and be able to buy vegatables. That does not make me a Libertarian. I do not think the market will fix everything.
posted by Rubbstone at 2:18 PM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Americans (or their governments) are freaky strange with their farm subsidies programs. Corporate welfare that destroys the soil, increases local food prices, reduces domestic employment and keeps starving LDCs repressed. Yet the message never ever gets out there. US consumers should be angry about their farm sector. But they don't appear to be.
posted by wilful at 2:59 PM on March 2, 2008

The Kingsolver book also has a mistake in the subtitle. The correct subtitle is A Year of Food Life. I was pretty beat last night.

Illegal also has only one "a".
posted by Toekneesan at 4:30 PM on March 2, 2008

US consumers should be angry about their farm sector. But they don't appear to be.


The 2007 Farm Bill (which is an omnibus bill composed of hundreds of separate pieces of legislation) is still in negotiation. Congress received a three-month extension to reconcile the separate House and Senate versions of the bill. The time to have profoundly impacted the legislation was last summer and fall, when it was being assembled, but it's not too late to get in touch with your representatives and let them you know you want policies more favorable to farmers who grow "specialty crops" - what we would call our locally grown fruits and vegetables. Here is some advocacy information for the coming (2008) version.

Though we may have missed the boat on deep change for the 2007 bill, the Farm Bill must be reauthorized every time it expires, so there will be another chance to make change in a few years. It's certainly not too early to start learning about the problems, talking the talk, and demanding real change in the next authorization cycle.

In addition to subsidies, the Farm Bill contains legislation governing things such as federal Food Stamps, school free lunch programs, grants for environmentally healthy practices, grants for economic development projects,

For updates and analysis: the Farm and Food Policy Project
posted by Miko at 5:33 PM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Keeping people from growing food they want to grow on the land is stupid.

Good thing nobody is doing that. Everyone's free to grow whatever the fuck they want on their own land, cannabis etc excepted.

He grows what he wants on his own land. He could buy more land and grow what he wants on that.

The only problem he's having is that nobody will rent -- not sell, rent -- him land to grow vegetables because doing so harms the landowner's interests because the landowners participate in a commodity-crop program and want to retain the option to receive commodity-crop subsidies. In other words, the people who own that land don't want him growing veggies on it.

All this schmuck needs to do is get a loan and buy some more land. If his farming actually serves local demand like he says, he should have no problem getting that loan.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:54 AM on March 3, 2008

Easy to say, ROU_Xenophobe, but in my state land values are so high that produce growers usually cannot afford to buy it. Most farmers I know here are tenant farmers; others are fortunate to have inherited land. (Next time you're at a farmer's market, this is an interesting thing to ask about) Most say if they had to buy new farmland today, they would be unable to do so. Part of the reason? People who accept subsidies will receive financial benefits even if the land lies fallow. Who does this benefit? Why not extend the same supports and protections to small farmers?

One problem with US agriculture is that, with real estate and development drawing such insane investment dollars, the value of land for residential and commercial use is higher than the value of land for agricultural use. The endgame of this situation, without government intervention, is all food coming from all agribusiness, and communities poorer in human resources and knowledge of farming. Farms would continue to cluster where arable land is abundant, farming supply networks are strong, and states are favorable to big business. We have created entire regions of the country which are unable to support themselves through their own food supplies. National security being a concern, and natural disasters being quite able to take down our transport infrastructure (as Katrina showed), is that a responsible way to manage our food resources in this country?
posted by Miko at 7:41 AM on March 3, 2008

« Older Attacked by shadows   |   Ice Road Truckers of Canada Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments