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Clarkson '12: Putting the farm back into the Farm Bill


Ah, the American farm: red barn, goats and speckled cows munching grass as they bathe in sunlight, rolling green fields of grain in the distance. It's an image of serenity and sufficiency, of peace and plenty.

Now replace this image with long, low industrial warehouses, dark inside and packed with thousands of chickens trampling one another, cows crowded front to back with no room to move, fields of genetically modified corn doused with chemical fertilizer and the stench of manure for miles. Though we don't like to admit it, the current Farm Bill, passed in 2008, mostly facilitates the latter image.

But the Farm Bill is up for a rewrite this year, with House, Senate and field hearings currently underway. So what does the newest iteration of this disorganized, unfocused bill need? Well, lots of things. But to start, subsidy structures must be overhauled in order to promote a sustainable economy, society and environment. We cannot continue to focus strictly on the mass production of low-quality foodstuffs.

Luckily, there are still farms that resemble that first idyllic image. While conducting research on artisan cheese producers in the southwestern "Driftless" region of Wisconsin - so called because of the lack of glacial drift during the most recent glaciation period, about 50,000 years ago - I had the chance to visit some of these farms and talk to the cheese producers who continue to resist the large-scale, consolidated production of low-quality cheese that the United States Department of Agriculture seems to unabashedly encourage.

Right now, the Farm Bill focuses on the creation of cheap commodities. The United States Department of Agriculture doles out subsidies to farmers who produce certain crops, like corn and soy, on a large scale. The result is a surplus of these crops while smaller producers are going out of business because of a complete lack of federal support. The excess commodity crops are pushed into processed foods in the form of soy lecithin and high fructose corn syrup, or converted into energy-inefficient ethanol or animal feed, among other uses. Meat and dairy production meet a similar fate, though not on quite the same scale because these industries are not as heavily subsidized.

During conversations with the Wisconsin cheese producers, it was quite apparent that the objectives of these farmers are different from those of the USDA. These producers stressed the importance not just of yields, but of flavor and quality, the productive social interactions that result from a supportive network of producers, the positive effects of small-scale production on the environment and the economic impact of this industry on the region. Without adequate attention and incentives from the federal and state governments, however, these producers are in danger of being overtaken by the large-scale dairies that are supported by the USDA and the current Farm Bill.

Shifting the focus of some of our agriculture subsidies away from mass production to reintegrate small-scale production would demonstrate our country's commitment to preserving rural livelihoods and environmental protection. The three-pronged or "triple-bottom-line" set of objectives for the Farm Bill that I propose - quality of economy, society and environment - are currently being addressed by small-scale producers. Research like ours is starting to document the factors that help create these triple-bottom-line outcomes. Our work suggests that comparable concentrations of small-scale production could be replicated throughout the country with a modest amount of direct state and government support to groups of producers who demonstrate the potential to produce high quality products on smaller scales. And if the government subsidizes this type of production, then high-quality products don't have to be so expensive either. The European Union has been experimenting with these types of subsidies since the '90s, and has expanded their programs year after year because of satisfied producers and consumers.

Of course, the goal of a subsidy overhaul is not to completely remove the support of large-scale agriculture that is quite essential to our national food provision. High-yield commodity production impacts every American - it affects our diets and lifestyles, and even helps ensure our national security by making us less reliant on imported food. By identifying those areas of commodity production where subsidy support is already adequate, or excessive, and channeling those funds instead to subsidize smaller operations with triple-bottom-line objectives, more Americans - both producers and consumers - can be supported and protected by our Farm Bill, while integrating additional values, like environmental quality, into the current systems of production.

So let's make the 2012 Farm Bill support more farmers. Small-scale producers with intentional, triple-bottom-line production practices should not be in constant fear of absorption by larger operations that focus exclusively on economic gains. Allocating subsidies to these producers will help make them more resilient against co-optation and will support more proud Americans and their quality contributions.



Veronica Clarkson '12 works with the Brown Agricultural Resilience Initiative on the economic, social and environmental viability of alternative agriculture. She can be reached at



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