Maroney: Keep the farm bill separate from food stamp nutrition funding

Milking time at Island Acres Farm in South Hero. VTD/Josh Larkin
Milking time at Island Acres Farm in South Hero. VTD/Josh Larkin

Editor’s Note: This commentary is by James H. Maroney, Jr. He graduated with a Masters in Environmental Law & Policy from Vermont Law School in 2012 and lives in Leicester, Vt.

Perhaps someone who is not hysterical about having the nutrition title (formerly food stamps) stripped out of the farm bill for fear they will lose leverage to keep nutrition spending up should stop to ask why the parity milk price would be $50 a hundredweight or three-fold higher than the paltry $18 per hundredweight dairy farmers now receive.

Is it a reasonable explanation for why FMMO milk prices are stalled at about where they were in the late 1970s, when the two bills were conjoined?

The concept of parity, introduced in the Peek-Johnson bill and Capper-Volstead plan – both vetoed by Calvin Coolidge – provided that farm workers were just as important to the nation’s health as urban factory workers and should therefore enjoy roughly equal pay for a day’s work.  The nation’s population in those days comprised 39 percent farmers, and farmers voted. Today, the nation’s population comprises about 2 percent farmers but in spite of their vote, they have lost all social, economic and political power.

That is why urban representatives manipulated matters such that farmers are actually funding the nutrition title.  Today, while farmers are still relatively powerless, they do still make the nation’s food. Perhaps it is time to disjoin the nutrition title and the farm bill and pay for each separately and forthrightly.

I am in complete agreement that society should offer a helping hand to its most vulnerable and no one in the richest country in the world should go hungry. But I am fine with splitting out the nutrition title; the nutrition title was joined to the farm bill to entice urban representatives to approve out-sized crop subsidies. Farmers, who know crop subsidies boost yields and believe higher yields are in their interests, were duped: crop subsidies do drive production, but over-production drives farm and food prices down. That is why urban food security advocates (and food manufacturers) want to tie the two together.

Let the Republicans divide the two. The representatives will debate the appropriation for nutrition programs; those programs must stand on their own until they can find someone else to lean on beside farmers. The Republican-controlled house will then cut the crop subsidies to save money. The result will be that farm yields will come down and farm and food prices will go up, maybe even above the farmers’ costs of production. Hallelujah!

To prevent greedy farmers from tripling production to take advantage of higher prices, Congress must—MUST—strengthen rules governing conventional farm practices to hold yields down and protect the environment. Farmers might devote free cash flow (think of it!) to pay down loans and to increase debt:equity ratios strained by decades of paying for the nation’s nutrition title. Farmers might actually pay income taxes and become middle class. The taxpayers fund the nutrition title. And the environment, strained by decades of planting fence row to fence row and of absorbing hundreds of millions of tons of artificial fertilizers and herbicides to fragile soil and water, might actually breath a sigh of relief!

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  • Kathy Nelson

    How about putting the hammer down on farmers who use illegal aliens as slave labor? There are good, honest farmers out there who employ their own families and hire locally. They are the ones who have earned government assistance. Any farmer who is found to have hired illegals should be banned from receiving any assistance at all.
    Also, farmers who misuse pesticides and fertilizers need to start getting some serious fines, and the makers of those products need to start coming under some really strict regulations.

  • Jocob Miller

    Vermont could/should amend the Current Use program to remove a farmer’s participation in this property tax reduction (subsidy) program if they hire illegal workers and/or if they are found to be providing sub-standard housing for these workers.

    Nonetheless, the author is incredibly naive as to the workings of Congress, especially this Congress, and especially the House, which split the programs and then raised the subsidies to agribusiness resulting in more market distortions.