ATTN: Calling all foodies, policy wonks and friends of the earth.
I want to invite you to join me on a journey through the wild and whacky world of American agricultural policy.
If you’re reading this at all, you’ve probably already got some opinions on our country’s ag policies. A lot of us in the foodie and sustainability worlds walk around like zombies muttering well-worn mantras.
Crop subsidies…BAAAAD. Slow food…Goooood!
Corn ethanol, bad. Farmers markets, good!
CAFOs, baaaad. Michael Pollan, good (and delicious!)!
In this blog, we’re going to dig into the meat of these issues. I’m not going to try and disavow you of your opinion that subsidies are bad or that Michael Pollan is a foodie god. I quite agree. But what happens when you want to go beyond the mantras? When selling a skeptic on the rightness or righteousness of sustainable food production depends on a somewhat more nuanced understanding?
There is a great scene in Season 4 of the West Wing. President Bartlet is engaged in a fierce battle with the Republican nominee, a former governor from Florida. The nominee is full of the small government bluster and bravado that seems all too prescient at the moment. In their only debate, the moderator asks the Governor whether tax cuts are really the right solution to the country’s economic woes:
Governor Ritchie: You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.
Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.
President Bartlet: That’s the ten-word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.
This blog is for those who believe in the ideals of sustainable agriculture but whom also recognize that ten words are not enough. Transforming our agricultural system—or even nudging it in the right direction—will require more than ten words. This country badly needs a new paradigm of agriculture, what Wendell Berry might call a rediscovery of the “Agrarian Standard.” But before that’s a possibility, we need an army of people who are passionate, committed and informed about the complexities involved. We need evangelists wielding hard facts.
So, yes, we’re going to talk Title II of the Farm Bill (the Conservation Title). And we’re going to learn about the “disappearing agricultural middle.” And we’re going to talk crop subsidies—direct subsidies, counter-cyclical payments, crop loan guarantee programs, and the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program. And, yes, we’re even going to delve into crop insurance (perhaps the largest and most pernicious government subsidy of all, it turns out).
My goals are pretty simple. First, to provide a readable (and dare I say entertaining?) overview of the policies that are (in my opinion) doing the most harm or good for sustainable agriculture. But this is the Duke Farm blog, and I have a second goal: to ground these wonkish musing in the very real work we are doing at the Duke Farm.
Much of what is wrong with American Agriculture is its abject failure in supporting small, sustainable farms like the Duke Campus Farm. In fact, most sustainable farmers will tell you that if the government weren’t doing anything, that would be just fine. In fact, our national policies are hurting precisely the types of farmers that grow healthy foods in sustainable ways. The Duke Farm will provide our window of understanding into just why that is.
I hope you’ll read on as I get started on this project. Please don’t hesitate to join the discussion or to suggest topics that you would like to hear more about.