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The politics of apples and alfalfa

December 30, 2009

Having grown up with my grandmother’s vegetable garden and having lived in the UK for several years, I know what good tomatoes taste like– and I can definitely say that I have *never* bought a supermarket tomato that tastes anything like the ones I grew up with, or the ones that I can buy in any supermarket on this side of the Atlantic ocean.

The problem is, many Canadians and Americans can’t remember what a fresh juicy peach tastes like. And we’re not quite as fanatical about our food as the French (who are willing to die for it) or the Italians (who live their lives for it) or even the Brits.  At the risk of sounding like an indulgent and spoiled Westerner, we need to fight for good fresh food– and that is going to have to include a change to farm subsidies– particularly where they produce produce perverse incentives like the ones described below.

Interestingly, the “food politics” movement has gained a substantial following since the publication of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. In addition to Schlosser and Pollen, we can now count Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama as leading advocates.

As a small organic vegetable producer in southern Minnesota… my efforts to expand production to meet regional demand have been severely hampered by the Agriculture Department’s commodity farm program. As I’ve looked into the politics behind those restrictions, I’ve come to understand that this is precisely the outcome that the program’s backers in California and Florida have in mind: they want to snuff out the local competition before it even gets started.

The commodity farm program effectively forbids farmers who usually grow corn or the other four federally subsidized commodity crops (soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton) from trying fruit and vegetables. Because my watermelons and tomatoes had been planted on “corn base” acres, the Farm Service said, my landlords were out of compliance with the commodity program.

I’ve discovered that typically, a farmer who grows the forbidden fruits and vegetables on corn acreage not only has to give up his subsidy for the year on that acreage, he is also penalized the market value of the illicit crop, and runs the risk that those acres will be permanently ineligible for any subsidies in the future. (The penalties apply only to fruits and vegetables — if the farmer decides to grow another commodity crop, or even nothing at all, there’s no problem.)

In my case, that meant I paid my landlords $8,771 — for one season alone! And this was in a year when the high price of grain meant that only one of the government’s three crop-support programs was in effect; the total bill might be much worse in the future. Full story.

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