Farm Bill Dysfunction: Colo. Interest Groups, Farmers Groan as Congress Fiddles

Clear Creek Organics' Stephen Cochenour hopes to see farming become more local, communal and connected.
Clear Creek Organics’ Stephen Cochenour hopes to see farming become more local, communal and connected.

WHEAT RIDGE, Colo.– Last week U.S. Republican representatives voted to exclude the nation’s revamped food stamps program from the House version of the 2013 farm bill. This week, the Colorado Public Interest Research Group released a report on what it calls the farm bill’s wasteful agricultural-subsidy spending, joining with farmers to ask Congress to make real reforms before passing the vital five-year legislation.

The CoPIRG report noted that since 1995 the federal government has supported through subsidies the production of junk food to the tune of $19.2 billion, a figure which ironically approaches the funding the House would like to cut from the food stamps or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), cuts Democrats opposed and which kept the full version of the bill from passing in June. The report also found that 3.8 percent of farmers raked in 75 percent of the total $292.5 billion in agricultural subsidies the government doles out, while 62 percent of farmers didn’t receive any assistance at all.

Observers say the wrangling over the farm bill highlights the kind of contradictions and hypocrisies that define today’s Capitol Hill, where ideological talking points about free markets and the role of government cloud a reality where big-money special interests pull the strings. They say it’s a toxic combination that produces bad policy.

“These kinds of subsidies confuse the market,” says Stephen Cochenour of Clear Creek Organics Farm, a community-supported acre-and-a-half family operation in Wheat Ridge that delivers produce directly to local household subscribers. “With so much subsidized support, consumers can’t distinguish between what canned and processed foods really cost compared to the food we eat fresh, which receives no subsidies.”

Danny Katz, who on Tuesday presented the report at Cochenour’s farm, sought to illustrate the disjunction between government spending on food production and the food values held by Coloradans. He used drawings of gardens all over the state to make his point. He paired the drawings with maps representing a household garden that spends its money the way the farm bill allocates taxpayer funds — tomatoes, carrots, squash, herbs, and the like replaced by corn with a dash of soy or tobacco.

“It’s a horrible use of taxpayer dollars to fund and support the most profitable businesses that don’t need subsidies,” says Katz. “Pair that with the fact that so much goes to subsidize junk food ingredients at a time when we have an obesity epidemic.”

Katz pointed out that USDA subsidies to profitable crops like corn and soy would buy each American 20 Twinkies, while its largest subsidy to fresh fruit would buy each American half an apple.

“The USDA continues to muddle its message,” says Cochenour. “First they say ‘Eat more fresh fruit and veggies.’ Then they assist in growing everything but.”

CoPIRG Director Danny Katz demonstrates the difference in government subsidies to corn and soy that end up funding junk food. Tthe equivalent of 20 Twinkles but only half an apple per American, he said.

Underlining the fact that funding for food stamps is so hotly contested now in the House that the SNAP portion of the bill had to be split from the ag-policy side just to pass any version of the bill at all, Katz said a lack of bipartisanship and real fiscal conservatism is at the root of the budget issues.

“There was this great amendment to the House bill that would have capped farm and subsidy size. Basically if your farm makes a profit over $250,000, it would be ineligible for assistance,” said Katz. “It would have saved billions and [it] failed by just a few votes.”

Three of Colorado’s Representatives, Republicans Tipton and Gardner and Democrat Perlmutter, split from the Colorado delegation’s otherwise bipartisan support for the reform.

Gardner and Tipton both campaigned as fiscal conservatives. They represent the state’s most-heavily agricultural districts. Neither voted to cut the costs of Big Agriculture subsidies but they both voted for the first version of the farm bill proposed in the House, which aimed to slash $20 billion from the SNAP program. They voted again for the new version that left out the food stamp program entirely.

Michael Bowman, a politically-active farmer from Gardner’s District 4, is adamant that the farm bill without SNAP would be disastrous for their district, where enough children live in poverty to fill Gardner’s hometown of Yuma 31 times over. Further, the farm-only bill, he said, lacks not just subsidy reform, but also the innovation and long-term planning he thinks farmers on Colorado’s eastern plains need.

“What can we do to take the resources we have, for example renewable energy, and open up the market so farmers can have that opportunity?” Bowman asked. “In southeastern Colorado, we need legislation that will help increase production of local food going to urban markets and schools. That would create great economic activity, but it takes good sound policy and long-term assurances for farmers.”

CoPIRG collected drawings of family gardens throughout Colorado, blue, and compared them to farm bill policy versions in yellow.

Representative Tipton, of the high-fruited plains of District 3, released a statement after the passage of the half farm bill saying, “Today the House passed legislation to provide that long-term certainty for the Agriculture community by continuing vital programs including crop insurance, research, investments in production and regulatory relief.”

Brad Webb, a farmer from Tipton’s district, didn’t quite agree with his representative’s statement.

“It’s basically a ghost bill to appease big ag,” Webb said. “They’re just passing the buck … So much of the great stuff from the Senate bill– including environmental energy– hit the cutting-room floor. Big corn, rice and sugar, all made out OK. Unfortunately, the people who really matter got left behind, not just on the farm side: a lot of people who rely on SNAP won’t be able to put a nutritious meal on the table. It’s a shame.”

Tipton’s statement indicated that he looks forward to the House addressing the SNAP issue soon, but issues remain with the legislation currently heading to committee. The White House has announced it won’t sign a farm bill without SNAP, without more serious cuts to big-ag subsidies and without the environmental and training policy that will grow jobs in the ag sector.

“I have a hunch this half farm bill will play out as legislation to nowhere,” said Bowman. “Then they’ll grandstand with some disastrous SNAP bill. We’ll be forced into a continuing resolution and for the second year in a row no one will address the challenges, much less the opportunities that are widely available.”

This second year of gridlock over the farm bill comes at a challenging time in the ag world, when a long-term plan for the innovations that will protect crops against worsening drought and train desperately needed new farmers are part-and-parcel with the passage of the bill. As The Colorado Independent reported during the passage of the Senate farm bill, the USDA estimates that the average age of the American farmer is 57 years old and that more than 50 percent of farmers are expected to retire in the next 10 years. Farmers all across the country have expressed concern over Congress’s inability to pass a new farm bill, saying that extending the 2008 version simply doesn’t cut it.

“On the positive side, maybe this will invigorate some change,” said Webb. “There will be a lot of Congressmen looking for new jobs in a few years if we don’t see some more cooperation.”