Carrots, sticks, and crumbs: Making the most of the new Farm Bill, and gearing up for 2012

By Aimee Witteman (cross-posted on Gristmill)

Last week, in a stuffy room on Capitol Hill, I joined a couple dozen activists and farmers to discuss the Farm Bill. Why? you ask. Why bother to meet in hot-as-an-oven Washington D.C. to discuss the legislative mess that recently sputtered to an all too drawn-out end?

While the ink is barely dry on the new farm legislation, the campaign for the 2012 Farm and Food Bill has already begun. Critics have likened the farm bill wins to “crumbs” because they represent a small part of the overall Farm Bill loaf. The relative merits of incremental change can be debated endlessly. But for people serious about changing the food system, the $14 billion of funding won in the new bill for programs that support everything from beginning farmers to organic production to conservation on working land represent real reforms that can benefit real people doing some really good things on/for the land and in their communities. And that’s why this group of grassroots advocates got together: to wipe the sweat from their brows, roll up their sleeves, and begin to strategize a coordinated effort to ensure that money translates into real support for sustainable farming, environmental stewardship, rural economic development, urban food projects, and other good-food efforts. The funding in the new law has the potential to grow and nourish sustainable food and agriculture efforts around the country and in doing so, build the power of the 2012 Farm and Food Bill movement.

But first we have to get the word out.

Winner takes ALBA

Maria Luz and her husband Florentino Collazo embody the kind of farmer success story that we could see blossom throughout the country if farmers and organizations take advantage some of the new Farm Bill wins. (Photo of Maria seeding beets from Rodale Institute.)

Maria and Florentino currently grow organic produce, including melons and orchard crops, in California’s Monterey County. Before becoming full-time farmers, Maria worked for 15 years at an asparagus-packing facility while Florentino harvested and packed lettuce in the fields of the Salinas Valley.

When Maria and Florentino decided to take steps toward realizing their dream of owning their own farm, they went to the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), a community-based organization in Salinas. ALBA’s research shows that a typical farmworker in the Salinas Valley earns less than $20,000 per year, so the opportunity for Maria and Florentino to earn a gross income of more than $10,000 per planted acre was significant. But like most new farmers, they needed access to technical skills and financial assistance.

Through ALBA’s farm incubator program, Maria and Florentino learned organic farming methods and honed their marketing skills. After several years of farming three acres rented from ALBA and putting money away, Maria and Florentino were able to purchase their own farm. The financing was made possible through an Individual Development Account organized by California FarmLink and a beginning farmer purchase loan through the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. Along with their savings, these programs allowed Maria and Florentino to buy 10 acres and start their own farm.

Today, Maria grows and sells hot-season crops from her 10 acres as well as cool-season crops from three acres she continues to rent from ALBA. She and Florentino market their produce through ALBA Organics and at the farmers’ markets and farm stand at the Carmel Mission every Sunday morning.

Growing more farmers

Over the next five years, increased numbers of beginning farmers throughout the country will have the opportunity to benefit from the kinds of technical and financial assistance offered to Maria and Florentino. This is because there is more funding for beginning farmer and rancher programs in the new farm law than ever before, including a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, an Individual Development Account Pilot Program, a down-payment loan program, and others. Not only may more farmers get a start on the land because of these wins, they can also make a connection to the grassroots movement fighting for long-term policy change. Ultimately, this is the best way to ensure that legislative support for good policy alternatives will continue to grow.

There are many things that can’t be left to the market if we want a healthier food system: making sure that private agricultural land is managed sustainably, guaranteeing adequate public funding for classical plant and animal breeding at land-grant universities, and bringing farmers markets to vulnerable rural towns and urban centers. These and other good programs like them also survived the Farm Bill fight.

So what happens now that the Farm Bill is over? We take the “crumbs” that we won, invest in our land, farmers, and communities — and build an even stronger grassroots movement for 2012.

Aimee Witteman spent a good part of her life where the Northwoods meets America’s dairyland, climbing trees and eating squeaky curds. She currently lives in D.C., where she is the grassroots organizing and outreach director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow.

2 Responsesto “Carrots, sticks, and crumbs: Making the most of the new Farm Bill, and gearing up for 2012”

  1. Sarah B says:

    Bravo, Aimee!  While there is much about the Farm Bill that isn’t perfect, we lose an opportunity if we don’t take full advantage of what we did gain–and success stories will only fuel the arguments for better policies during the next round.

  2. Bill Marler says:

    Something to think about in addition to the Farm Bill.  Why no hearings on the meat supply?  I posted this last night on

    E. coli O157:H7 is a powerful and deadly bacterium

    You cannot see it, taste it, or smell it. 250,000 E. coli O157:H7 (E. coli) bacteria will fit on the head of a pin.  Ten to 50 will kill your child or your grandmother.

    More likely due the expertise of Children’s Hospitals, and other top medical centers around the country, deaths at times are avoided, however, often not before Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) nearly kills.  HUS, a complication from an E. coli infection, can cause severe damage to kidneys, intestines, and pancreas.  Falling into a coma and suffering further from cognitive impairment are all too common.

    I’ve seen the inside of too many of those Intensive Care Units with families who are scared senseless as they watch their children or mother shutdown.  For 15 years, this has been my world.   When I was an undergraduate, I read Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle.  That book took the American public on a tour of the contaminated underbelly of the meat industry and they were sickened.  It led to the Pure Food & Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, versions of which are still in place today.

    Until 1993, I thought—because of those laws—that the United States had a safe and secure food supply. But, then came the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli outbreak.  It killed four, and sickened hundreds, including many who were gravely ill with HUS and related complications.  Many of those victims became my clients.

    Once again, there was a public outcry for safe meat.  The Food Safety & Inspection Service responded by creating and aggressively enforcing the Mandatory Risk Management System.  Based on research and practices of the U.S. Space Program, the risk management system established checkpoints at every phase of meat processing.

    The presence of E. coli was defined as an adulterant under the Federal Meat Inspection Act.  I continued to sue “Big Meat” as most of my clients up to 2002 were children who were made sick by eating E. coli contaminated meat.  I recovered over $350 million during this period from the meat industry and the restaurants they supplied in verdicts and settlements on behalf of those clients.  In 2003 recalls of meat laced with E. coli began to decline.  After 24 million pounds of contaminated beef were recalled in 34 separate incidents in 2002, recalls dropped off to just over a million pounds a year for the next three years, and then to just 181,900 pounds in 2006.  The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention saw E. coli – related illnesses drop 48%.

    But then came Spring 2007. E. coli, which begins its life in the hindgut of a cow, mounted a surge on its home court.  And, it came back with a vengeance.  Thirty-three million pounds of beef would be recalled in 22 incidents.  All over the country, slaughterhouses, packing and distribution centers, retail outlets, and restaurants were once again testing positive for E. coli and people-mostly children-were getting seriously sick.

    The American meat supply, which had again been touted as safest in the world, tumbled back into disarray.  But, why?

    As with any unexplained mystery, theories abound.  Could it really just be meat industry complacency?  Did everyone respond to the good numbers in 2006 by taking a long nap?  Did meat processors slack off—consciously or unconsciously—and relax their testing procedures?

    Or could it be better reporting?  Doctors are more aware of E. coli now, and perhaps when patients present symptoms of food poisoning; tests are more likely to be ordered.  When the presence of E coli is found and reported, a recall is triggered.

    There’s always global warming.  Seriously though – very smart people have posited that droughts in the southeast and southwest have launched more fecal dust into the air, which then finds its way into beef slaughtering plants.  It has also been suggested that the deluging rainfall in other areas created muddy pens—an ideal environment for E. coli.

    While we’re at it, why not blame high oil prices?  High gas prices have fueled (sorry) the growth of ethanol plants.  These plants are often built next to feedlots, and a byproduct of the ethanol production process—distiller’s grains—is considered an excellent (and cheap) alternative to corn for cattle feed.  Unfortunately, research at Kansas State University associates the use of distiller’s grains as feed with an increase in the incidence of E. coli in the hindguts of cattle.

    Another controversial issue may affect the meat supply.  The New York Times reported that immigration officials began a crackdown at slaughterhouses across the country in the fall of 2006.  Experienced—albeit undocumented—workers have been cleared out and replaced with unskilled, inexperienced labor.

    And then there’s Darwin.  Another theory holds that interventions have caused the wily E. coli microbes to adapt, selecting pathogens that are more resistant to detection or intervention.  E. coli back in our meat cannot be tolerated.  We’ve got a lot of summer of 2008 left. Summer has always been kind to the E. coli bug.  More than 5.6 million pounds of E. coli contaminated beef has been recalled so far in 2008, most supplied by Nebraska Beef Ltd., via the Kroger Grocery chain.  All of which is responsible for a multi-state outbreak of E. coli that again is filling up the ICU’s in Hospitals in the seven states.

    What is being done?  Not much.

    Congress has held some hearings, but the only new reform is that the names of retail stores that received meat and poultry involved in recalls with high health risk will be made public.  Good as far as it goes.

    However, despite 73,000,000 American’s being sickened, 325,000 hospitalized and 5,000 deaths each year, food safety has not made it as a Presidential campaign issue.  Congress, Democrats and Republicans, have about run out its clock.  But E. coli is back in our meat and we better care.


    Might I suggest:

    * Improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases. First responders – ER physicians and local doctors – need to be encouraged to test for pathogens and report findings directly to local and state health departments and the CDC promptly. Right now, for every person counted in an outbreak there are some 20 to 40 times those that are sick but never tested. The more we test, the quicker we know we have an outbreak and the quicker it can be stopped.

    * These same governmental departments, whether local, state or federal, need to learn to “play well together.” Turf battles need to take a back seat to stopping an outbreak and tracking it to its source. That means resources need to be provided and coordination encouraged so illnesses can be promptly stopped and the offending producer – not an entire industry – are brought to heal.

    * Require real training and certification of food handlers at restaurants and grocery stores. There also should be incentives for ill employees not to come to work when ill. We should impose fines and penalties on employers who do not cooperate.

    * Stiffen license requirements for large farm, retail and wholesale food outlets, so that nobody gets a license until they and their employees have shown they understand the hazards and how to avoid them.

    * Increase food inspections. While domestic production has continued to be a problem, imports pose an increasing risk, especially if terrorists were to get into the act. Points of export and entry are a logical place to step up monitoring. We need more inspectors – domestically and abroad – and we need to require that they receive the training in how to identify and control hazards.

    * Reorganize federal, state and local food safety agencies to increase cooperation and reduce wasteful overlap and conflicts. Reform federal, state and local agencies to make them more proactive, and less reactive. This too requires financial resources and accountability. We also need to modernize food safety statutes by replacing the existing collection of often conflicting laws and regulation with one uniform food safety law of the highest standard.

    * There are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.

    * We need to use our technology to make food more traceable so that when an outbreak occurs authorities can quickly identify the source and limit the spread of the contamination and stop the disruption to the economy. When I buy a book on line I can track it all the way to my mailbox. However, we have yet to find the source of a tomato (or salsa) outbreak after months of sickening hundreds.

    * Promote university research to develop better technologies to make food safe and for testing foods for contamination. Provide tax breaks for companies that push food safety research and employee training. Greatly expand irradiation of raw hamburger and other high-risk products.

    * Improve consumer understanding of the risks of food-borne illness. Foster a popular campaign similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which uses consumer power to promote a no-tolerance policy toward growers and companies that produce tainted food.

    * Provide Presidential leadership on a topic that impacts every single one of us.