Amber fields of bland

What a brave new farm bill might look like

By
January 18, 2007

There’s invariably something risky, if not risible, about allowing Congress to decide what’s for dinner. Bad decisions about agriculture have defined government policy for the last century; 70 percent of our nation’s farms have been lost to bankruptcy or consolidation, creating an agricultural economy that looks more Wall Street than Main Street.

Now, after the uprooting of a thousand years of agrarian wisdom, we chefs have discovered something really terrible — no, not that the agricultural system we help support hurts farmers and devastates farming communities, or that it harms the environment and our health. What we’ve discovered is that the food it produces just doesn’t taste very good.

Who’s responsible for the blandness? Look no further than Washington: There you will meet not farmers, but the people determining how our farmers farm. They do it through the farm bill, a mammoth piece of legislation that designates American agricultural policy every five years and that Congress is preparing to take up in its new session.

This is a sweeping bill, omnibus in every sense — nutrition, conservation, genetic engineering, food safety, school-lunch programs, water quality, organic farming, and much more. It’s really a food and farm bill. If you’re a chef or a home cook or someone who just likes to eat, it affects you, because it determines what you eat and how what you eat is grown.

And the food that we grow on 200 million acres of harvested cropland is inedible. Stand in the middle of our farm belt and you’ll see cornfields extending to the horizon, but the harvest won’t be dinner, not until it’s milled and processed into flours or starches, or used to fatten our animals on feedlots. Just four crops — corn, rice, soybeans, and wheat — account for the vast majority of our harvested acreage. Not surprising, given that these same crops account for 70 percent of the total subsidies allotted to farmers.

No one wants farmers to suffer, especially chefs. But if we’re spending $20 billion or so a year on farm subsidies, we ought to invest in the foods we eat. And I mean eat, not process into something that resembles food. That means fewer subsidies for grains like corn and soy, and more help for growers of broccoli and tomatoes.

How do we do this? We could start by rewarding diversity over yield, basing subsidy payments not on how many acres of corn a farmer grows but on the number of varieties of crops he plants. We could also link payments to, say, the efficiency of nitrogen fixation (crop rotation helps the soil retain nitrogen, so farmers don’t need to add it with chemicals) or equate them with how much a farm helps soil and water conservation. In effect, tie payments to plant health.

This doesn’t mean the government needs to tell the farmer what to grow. Instead, show the farmer that there’s more money to be made in a rich, diverse ecology and the planting strategy will change. Change the planting strategy, and whether it’s grains or greens, the quality of what’s harvested vastly improves.

Yes, the naughty thumb of science may have prodded the earth, as E. E. Cummings said, but there’s nothing wrong with thumbing dollar bills in the direction of promoting a tastier food supply. That’s the kind of green revolution that a chef can support.

But such thoughts are rarely on the minds of our legislators, or, so it seems, anyone else. Take as an example the insurance industry. Its policies favor big farms that grow a single commodity crop. If you’re a farmer who wants to grow lots of different crops, it’s almost impossible to get affordable coverage; to insurers, you’re pretty much the equivalent of a skydiving cigarette smoker.

The insurance regulations that are part of the farm bill need to address this disparity, because crop diversification should be exactly what insurers want: it helps to prevent the kind of natural disasters that insurance policies protect against, say, a devastating insect infestation. (Of course, it gives food lovers precisely what they want: more diversity, more variety, more flavor.) To this end, our agricultural policy should acknowledge the role of biodiverse farms in risk management by establishing discounts for farmers who practice this form of environmental stewardship and removing the discriminatory 5 percent premium surcharge on policies that encumbers organic producers under the current system.

While our legislators are at it, they might also look at another powerful paradox that chefs confront every day. If I want to purchase a case of carrots, it’s much easier (and cheaper) to get them from the Salinas Valley, in California, than from the Hudson Valley that surrounds my restaurants. The food-distribution system favors size. A distributor in California can send one truck to pick up 50 cases of carrots; a distributor procuring exclusively from the Northeast will need to send 50 trucks to 50 different farms.

That’s a shame, not just because a carrot that comes to New York from California gets singed with petroleum as it travels cross-country, but because at this time of year carrots pulled from the rich muck dirt of western New York have 50 times more flavor than their West Coast counterparts.

Same with milk, which large industrial dairy farms sell with the iconic label of a smiling, muscle-flexed cow in front of open pasture and next to an old red barn. That’s tantamount to false advertising, since the industrial dairy cow never sees a blade of fresh grass and has very few muscles to flex after receiving hormones to increase productivity. With 20,000 cows per farm, the animals spend a lot of time waiting in line for the next milking, so it’s hard to imagine that there is a lot of smiling going on.

False representation aside, there’s one point the powerful dairy industry won’t let us forget: milk is pretty cheap. But the real cost of milk is hidden in places like California, with its heavily subsidized irrigation system; if Western dairy farmers had to pay the real cost of the irrigation-dependent alfalfa fed to cows, New England’s milk prices would be more competitive. And if those cows ate a variety of grasses as they were meant to, instead of just alfalfa, “Got Milk?” would be more “Got Rich, Delicious, and Affordable Milk?”

Though food transportation and irrigation subsidies exist outside the domain of the current farm bill, their implications cannot be overlooked as we review (and revise) our system of agriculture. The new bill needs to level the playing field by recognizing a region’s agricultural strength — like New England’s abundant supply of great grassland — and encouraging farmers through subsidies and other inducements to use it accordingly.

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