A Minnesota Farmer Takes on Farm Subsidies, and Creates a Stir

vegetables.jpgJack Hedin is a Minnesota organic farmer who grows food for local markets. He wants to expand his operation to help meet the growing demand for his produce. The way he sees it, the federal government is standing directly in his way, and he’s upset about it. So he sent an Op-Ed to the New York Times, which they published last week. I imagine he was hoping to get people talking about our farm subsidy program and its impact on American food and farming. Judging from my email inbox, he succeeded in spades.

Here’s a summary of Jack Hedin’s story. He farms 100 acres in southern Minnesota, and has found that demand for his organic produce is so strong that he can’t meet it on his land. So last year, he rented 25 acres from two nearby corn farmers, and planted fruits and vegetables on the extra land. It wasn’t long before his landlords ran into trouble with the commodity farm program. This program subsidizes commodity crops, paying farmers who grow corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, cotton, and several others.

While the program was set up to guarantee farmers who grow commodity crops a certain income, it turns out that it also penalizes farmers who then switch to growing fruits and vegetables on “commodity base” acres. This is what happened to the farmers who had rented him the 25 acres. They found themselves out of compliance with the commodity farm program, and would be penalized not only for the subsidy that year for that acreage, but also for the market value of the “illicit” crops.

Mr. Hedin paid his landlords the $8771 in fines and losses they incurred. He learned that the reason for the harsh punishment is that large fruit and vegetable growers in California, Florida and Texas don’t want small farmers supplying their local areas with produce. They don’t want the competition, and they have succeeded in getting federal farm policy to help them block it. The farm bill, currently being reauthorized, will extend these financial penalties for switching land from commodities to fruits and vegetables.

As I said, my email inbox was filled with reactions to Mr. Hedin’s Op-Ed. Our local foods group list serve received a flurry of messages, showing how much passion there is about food policy, local food, the farm bill, and agriculture in general right now.

One of the emails came from the Executive Director of the Farm Services Agency in our area. He is responsible for administering the farm subsidy programs here, and felt compelled to respond the the Op-Ed.

Here are a few things I learned from talking to him. Basically, it’s not quite as black and white as it sounds. Yes, there is a rule, put in place in 1990 with support from the fruit and vegetable industry, to discourage farmers from switching commodity acres to produce. But the farm subsidy program is complicated – the way payments are calculated, the types of payments, the rules, and the penalties. Part of Mr. Hedin’s problems might have been avoided with a better understanding of these programs. Without going into great detail, the farmers could have avoided some of the penalties if they had removed the 25 acres from the books as commodity acres in advance, and chosen the right kind of rent agreement.

Still, for us local food advocates, it sure is discouraging that federal farm policy is discouraging farmers from growing fresh organic food for local markets.

Mr. Hedin’s story highlights a few things about food in America right now. The local foods movement in thriving. Demand for organic, sustainable, healthful and low-carbon foods is skyrocketing. At least in some places, suppliers are striving to meet this demand. Meanwhile, Americans are beginning to realize that the farm bill, something few of us understand, has big impacts on our food and farms, and thus on our lives. Mr Hedin touched a nerve because his story shows how U.S. Farm Policy is creating barriers to what many of us are striving for – a better, healthier, safer, more local, more sustainable, lower-carbon farming system.

Click here for a sampling of Editorials about the reauthorization of the Farm Bill.

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