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Subsidies, policies for farms should be leaner

March 9, 2012
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

We welcome the members of the U.S. House of Representatives and others who are in Saranac Lake today for a hearing on the upcoming Farm Bill, and we also want to share with them some opinions on agricultural subsidies that we think are common throughout the Adirondacks.

This is a time when the federal government absolutely has to cut spending, and farm subsidies are one area that should be trimmed heavily - especially for mega-farms, where they amount largely to corporate welfare.

Farms, in general, are doing better than they have in a long time. Young people are starting small ones and making them work, often changing the overall industry with new ideas and approaches. Meanwhile, Wall Streeters are investing in big swaths of Middle America's bread basket, profiting on feeding the world's growing population.

Let's give those seeds a chance to grow to fruition naturally and ease up on the federal fertilizer.

Farm subsidies were originally instituted during the Great Depression, mostly to save poor, small farmers from going under, like the Dust Bowl refugees. Those days are over, and the farmers taking most advantage of these subsidies now are not desperate welfare cases. The agricultural industrialists will be OK on their own, but the federal government desperately needs to conserve funds.

We understand that big farmers might respond by raising prices, which could lead to a certain degree of inflation, but entitlements for the wealthy must end sometime, if this is to be a just, sensible society - and if not here, if not now, when? A good, budget-cutting policy may have negative consequences, but it's better to deal with those than to reinforce bad, expensive policies.

A possible trade-off would be to ease regulation. One example of recent progress is that the federal government no longer treats spilled milk like spilled oil; that policy had required expensive and unnecessary spending by dairy farmers. But rules need further reduction to encourage the local food movement that is changing the nation for the better, but slower than it should. For instance, farmers have told us that if it wasn't for prohibitive regulatory costs, there might be more dairies or slaughterhouses in the North Country, things that were plentiful only two or three decades ago.

Federal policies should not herd farms and food-processing facilities into being large and few. While it makes them easier to regulate, it also means that any infection spreads to more food, throughout more of the country, leading to wider outbreaks. Also, it has led to less healthy eating overall by Americans, more reliance on cross-country shipping of food made for shelf life rather than freshness, and more additives and genetic modifications that may have unintended consequences in the future.

The location of today's hearing certainly shifts the focus away from mega-farms. It's odd that this massively important hearing - one of four nationally, and the only one in the Northeast - is being held here in Saranac Lake. Having the hearing anywhere in the North Country - even in a more agricultural area like Malone, Peru or Ogdensburg - would have made enough of a statement for small farms, but here? The Adirondacks have few farms these days, and the remaining ones tend to be on the fringes, such as the Champlain Valley.

But here's the clincher: Adirondack farmers have learned to think differently, to be progressive, to make things happen. And they have had tremendous results, at least in terms of public awareness and a general desire to eat more locally. When a farmers market began a few years ago in Lake Placid, it was novel - strange, even. Now there are farmers markets all over the Park, all the time, sometimes (in Lake Placid's case) year-round. There are also local food festivals and restaurants that specialize in dishes with local ingredients. It's pretty great.

This is what we want the representatives who set national agricultural policy to take away from today's hearing: that small farms are rising from the ground up, on their own, and that there's no sense in wasting billions to subsidize corporate farms that would only, ultimately, keep the little ones down.

Ideally, federal policies should be unbiased toward any particular kind of food production but should let people farm how they want with equal treatment. If any kind of farming is to be rewarded, it should be innovation, not conformity. Policies should definitely not be tilted toward industrial farming that squeezes out small farmers, who are in many ways the soul of this nation.

Cutting federal farm spending dramatically would help achieve these goals and save money.



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