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‘Fringe’ groups seek provisions in farm bill

U.S. farm and food policies are increasingly “out of balance” and must be re-directed to meet the needs of a broader group of farmers and ranchers, rural and urban communities and others who depend on a healthy food system.

That’s the view of a report released by the Farm and Food Policy Project, a coalition of rural, family farm, conservation, anti-hunger, nutrition, faith-based, public health and other groups. The report was endorsed by more than 350 organizations from all parts of the United States.

“Together we are calling for a new direction in U.S. farm and food policy because what we want and need from our food system and what we actually get from our agriculture and food policies are increasingly out of balance,” said Allen Hance, senior policy analyst and Northeast-Midwest Institute coordinator for the FFPP.

Hance was speaking at a Jan. 22 press conference held in Washington by the Farm and Food Policy Project, one of a growing number of groups announcing their intention to have a say in the 2007 farm bill.

Some FFPP members, such as the American Farmland Trust, Environmental Defense and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, are veterans of the farm bill process. Others like the Society for Nutrition Education, the Land Loss Prevention Project and the FFPP itself are newcomers.

“We’re witnessing the galvanizing of a movement,” said Hance, the moderator for the press briefing. “It is unprecedented for organizations with such diverse interests — many of whom have not been involved in previous farm bill debates — to come together like this.”

The Farm and Food Policy and its members believe U.S. farm programs are out of kilter in a number of areas.

“We see evidence of this imbalance in the unmet needs of many in agriculture: minority farmers, new and beginning farmers and ranchers, those trying to expand conservation efforts on their farms, those diversifying their operations and moving into new markets,” said Hance.

“We see this gap in the persistence of hunger in rural and urban communities across our nation and in the epidemic of obesity and diet-related diseases afflicting more and more Americans. We see it in the need for better rural development strategies and in the need for conservation resources sufficient to address major environmental challenges related to agriculture.”

Solving these problems will require new directions for farm programs, said Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust, an organization that has been sounding the alarm about the increasing loss of agricultural land to urbanization.

“Every minute we lose about 2 acres of farmland in the United States,” said Grossi. “During the time we spend at this news conference, we will have lost the equivalent of a small-scale farm. In addition, our federal farm programs, once vital to American prosperity, no longer meet the needs of most farmers, ranchers or the public.”

Grossi and spokesmen for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Environmental Defense said good program ideas, such as the Conservation Security Program in the current farm bill, too often “are left desperate for funding,” as Grossi put it.

“More than half of America is working farmland, which makes farmers, ranchers and forest landowners ourgreatest allies in addressing pressing air and water quality issues and health, environmental and energy concerns,” said Scott Faber, farm policy analyst for Environmental Defense.

“Yet the USDA turns away three out of four farmers who apply for conservation funding because of misplaced spending priorities. Instead of settling for the status quo, Congress should insist on farm policy that works for farmers, consumers and the environment.”

When reporters challenged those numbers during the briefing, Faber said the information was available from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency statistics on conservation programs. “It’s right there in the numbers. Conservation efforts are failing because of the lack of program funds.”

The needs of minority farmers and farm workers would also be given greater recognition under the Farm and Food Project’s farm bill recommendations.
“As the nation’s overall population becomes increasingly diverse, people of color are poised to play a much larger role in creating a viable and sustainable farm and food system for the future,” said Savi Horne, executive director of the Land Loss Protection Project in North Carolina.

“The 2007 farm bill must break the patterns of the past — ensuring redress to those unjustly denied assistance in the past, removing barriers that continue to limit access and opening new doors to socially disadvantaged farmers and farm workers.”

And the new law must also do more to address the problems of hunger and diet-related disease by strengthening the Food Stamp Program and other federal food assistance efforts, said Linda Berlin, a University of Vermont scientist representing the Society for Nutrition Education.

Speakers at the briefing said Democratic control of the new Congress gives them a “better than even” chance of getting many of the FFPP’s proposals enacted in the next farm bill, no matter how far outside the mainstream of traditional farm programs they might seem.

“We think we have an excellent opportunity to include many of these innovations in the 2007 legislation,” said the Farm and Food Policy Project’s Hance. “Don’t rule out the possibility that many of these proposals will be in the bills that come out of the House and Senate agriculture committees before they reach the floor.”


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