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Will Ideology Trump New Economic Opportunities for Farmers and Rural Communities?

June 3, 2011

We have previously reported on major funding decisions made by the House Appropriations Committee for the 2012 USDA and FDA budgets (see our Subcommittee markup report and full Committee markup report).  While funding programs is the appropriations committees’ function, they also play an important oversight role and at times helps shape policy, particularly through the Report that accompanies the funding bill.

This year’s House Report to accompany the agricultural spending bill approved earlier this week is no exception.  What is exceptional about it, however, is its misguided attack on the farming opportunities, economic growth, and job creation from the rising farmer interest and private sector investment in local and regional food systems.

The Committee Report flags the Department’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative – together with rules to increase fruit, vegetable, and whole grain offerings in school meals and rules to improve enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act to give farmers a fairer deal from multinational meat packers – as examples of “unfunded mandates” and “overly burdensome rulemakings” that, the Report claims, “harm small businesses, rural communities, and stifle economic growth.”

The claim is absurd.

The nutrition rule and livestock rule were mandated (with bipartisan support) by the 2010 Child Nutrition Act and the 2008 Farm Bill, respectively, and both would improve market and income opportunities for farmers and ranchers.  The Know Your Farmer initiative attempts to coordinate and streamline existing marketing and economic development programs to solve very real market barriers facing a growing segment of U.S. producers.  All three would help create new farming opportunities and help grow new markets and jobs.

The Report also criticizes USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) for awarding grants to researchers exploring ways to improve local and regional food systems.  The Report notes with alarm that $23 million in grants (out of an agency total of $1.2 billion) were for research and extension activities related to local and regional food production.  The Committee scolds NIFA, saying “the agency should be focusing its research efforts on only the highest priority, scientifically merited research” – the clear implication being that only the global industrial food system’s research agenda can possibly rank as high priority and scientifically merited.

The report also makes the odd claim that local and regional agriculture research “does not advance knowledge and understanding of the agricultural sciences and appear to have little scientific merit.”  Surely USDA competitive grant peer review panels are in a better position to make such judgments than congressional committees.  The growing number of farmers focused on local food production would certainly disagree that their research needs should be left out in the cold.

This is all highly reminiscent of the early industry and congressional reaction two decades ago to the first USDA research activities focused on sustainable agriculture and a decade ago on organic farming.  One can only hope that, as with the former cases, the initial knee jerk reaction will be modified over time and move from “threat” to “opportunity” status.  While still a pittance compared to the funding Congress provides for conventional food and agriculture, the federal research funding for sustainable and organic agriculture is important and a whole lot better than nothing.  It is unfortunate, if not unexpected, that even modest attempts to tilt the very unlevel playing field ever so slightly in a new direction (in this case to increase regional food production and improve infrastructure) results initially in such reactionary fury.

Finally, the Report also refuses the Department’s request to use a small portion of a wide number of rural economic development programs for a Regional Innovation Initiative to improve rural broadband access, advanced biofuels, local and regional food production, ecosystem markets for farmers, and rural conservation amenities.  Will an increased regional focus absolutely guarantee greater return on the taxpayer’s rural development dollar?  No.  Is it worth an experiment to see if program delivery and actual real world economic impact can be improved by this innovative approach?  Without a doubt.  Perhaps this initiative will have to await the 2012 Farm Bill, but we hope Congress will ultimately agree to jumpstart the effort in the 2012 appropriations bill.

We have seen this type of ideologically driven report language before, and will no doubt see it again.  It can happen at any time and most especially during periods of divided government, when scoring political points can at times outweigh more serious discussion.  In that light, perhaps its best to just let it roll off one’s back and move on.

We pause though, if only for a moment, to call readers attention to this Report language and to make the modest suggestion that agriculture is a big and diverse tent and needs to remain a big tent to assert its weight as a small minority within the bigger political landscape.  In our view, attempts to throw entire segments of agriculture out of the tent, especially when they are growing and increasingly popular segments, are self-defeating and, to use the new favorite Washington term, job-killing.  We do not suggest for a moment that everyone should become a local or regional food producer, far from it.  But we do believe these farmers and food business entrepreneurs deserve a seat at the table and a fair share of the Department’s research, rural development, and marketing resources.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Local & Regional Food Systems, Rural Development

One response to “Will Ideology Trump New Economic Opportunities for Farmers and Rural Communities?”

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