Farming & politics: to hope or despair?

Today, I mostly feel despair. What makes me so blue on such a beautiful sunny spring day? This week we encountered two sets of information about the role of politics in preserving and promoting agriculture (and subsequently everything that goes with it):

Tuesday night we attended a great forum on groundwater in McMinnville, hosted by several local environmental and agricultural groups. The three speakers—Jim Johnson, ODA; Todd Jarvis, OSU; and Mike McCord, local Watermaster—presented about current and projected groundwater usage in Yamhill County. Much of the discussion, in the presentations and in the questions that followed, focused on the future impact of pending Measure 37 claims.

(For our readers from outside of Oregon, Measure 37 was an approved voter led ballot initiative that bypassed all state or county zoning for landowners who purchased their land before said zoning was enacted. It has more or less created a enormous fiasco for planning departments, who don’t have the man power or resources to address the sudden surge of development petitions and the like. Not to mention the fact that agricultural land is being put into sub-divisions without the usual years of planning for growth that previously occurred in Oregon. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ve never seen a voter initiative that doesn’t offer oversimplified solutions to complex problems.)

Much of the actual Measure 37 discussion need not be repeated here since it’s all over the Oregon news these days: the number of claims and such. But what was news to me was the actual numbers in relation to groundwater usage. Since most of these claims lie outside municipalities, it’s fairly certain that the new residences will obtain their water from domestic wells. Right now these wells are ‘exempt’ from permitting and allowed usage of up to 15,000 gallons a day for indoor domestic purposes, not even including the allowed water usage for one half-acre of non-commercial landscaping and gardening.

That’s a lot of water, especially when you consider how many new homes could potentially be built with these pending claims. What wasn’t explicitly commented upon by any of the speakers, but especially significant to me by the end of the night, is the idea that these water users don’t have to apply for use permit—which means that they never go through anything parallel to the intentional use application process all agricultural water users do. I’m sure that most well owners don’t know what their legal usage is, and I’m willing to bet that most small acreage landowners push that limit without even realizing it. How would they even know? And, since they aren’t required to have flow meters the way junior groundwater rights users are, they probably don’t even know how much water they are using, period, regardless of whether it’s in the range of their allowable allotment.

Now multiply that potential over-use of water times thousands. And put those water users right next to existing irrigated farms. In limited groundwater regions—where many Measure 37 claims have been made—the possibilities for conflict are ripe.

The good news is that the state legislature is looking at many of these issues concerning groundwater and Measure 37 (and Measure 37 in general). There are two bills before the house and senate concerning ‘exempt’ status wells: 2564 (to address the issues surround exempt water use) and 2566 (to perhaps mandate water measuring/metering). So, I suppose there’s hope even in this issue.

However, the next morning we received the second depressing political message in the mail. We received an unfortunate letter from the Oregon Department of Agriculture informing us that funds for the National Organic Cost Share Reimbursement Program have all been dispersed. Therefore they are unable to process our request for reimbursement to help cover the cost of our organic certification fee as we received last year. As the letter then stated in a stand-alone paragraph for emphasis:

‘To date, USDA has not committed to continuing this grant program.’

As they say, money talks. And this message is crystal clear: the federal government doesn’t truly support sustainable agriculture and isn’t interested in promoting it, even in financially insignificant ways. Our reimbursement payment last year was a paltry _____ and was the only kind of ‘subsidy’ we received as small growers. To us, it was an important part of our budget, but compared to the federal government’s long list of ag subsidy programs, this is peanuts. Seriously: the entire federal organic reimbursement program cost less than what some individual farmers receive in subsidies each year.

Americans like to think of the United States as a free market capitalist system, but if you look at the subsidies channeling left and right into big a and corporations, you’ll see a different picture. $15 billion is spent each year subsidizing agriculture and the infrastructure to support it. And unfortunately, that government money determines a lot about our economy. People caring about issues and working hard is a great start, but no big cultural or economic changes can happen without funds. Money makes things happen: it hires people to work for change; it pays for education programs; it builds better networks and infrastructure. And little of it is headed in the direction of sustainable ag.

If the USDA really cared about sustainable ag, I think they would pay for 100% of certification costs (or directly fund certifiers) to—gasp!—encourage more farmers to transition to organic! I think that was the original idea of the reimbursement program, but apparently it wasn’t a long-lived one.

Really, when you consider how much we’re neglected, the organic movement’s success is phenomenal. But that still doesn’t soften the blow of our recent news. Sure, it’s only a few hundred bucks. But it’s the message that hurts almost more. All I hear is: ‘We don’t support you or your kind.’ Not such a surprise, but before I felt at least like the USDA gave us a token nod.

Plus, now that certification is federally regulated, small farmers can no longer legally use the word ‘organic’ without paying those funds. For the record, I’m a supporter of certification and even national standards (for multiple reasons I won’t get into now), but the reimbursement funds were always one of my arguments for ‘why it’s not so bad to voluntarily submit oneself to federal regulation.’ I can’t use that one anymore. Darn. No, it’s much deeper than that for me. It makes me rethink the whole shebang—at least momentarily.

I guess I naively assumed these funds would be renewed regularly, as a tiny little leftover bone thrown to organic folks while big ag continues to receive juicy meaty sirloin steaks in the form of fuel subsidies, crop payments, continued conventional research, etc. etc. etc.

Anyhow, this economic/political talk isn’t really my area of expertise, although I aim to stay informed and always vote. (Do you vote? If not, you should.) If anyone is interested in reading much more coherent, thoughtful, educated, trained thoughts on similar subjects, I recommend John Ikerd’s writings. He’s a professor emeritus from University of Missouri who focuses on agricultural economics. He publishes a regular column in Small Farm Today called ‘Sustaining People Through Agriculture,’ in which he discusses many of these exact issues.

And Ikerd is a good note to end on, because he brings hope into the despair. Although he frequently and readily admits the many faults in the current socioeconomic system surrounding agriculture, he also points to new systems and ways developing across America. He even has a phrase for his source of hope: The New American Farmer. What is new about the ‘new’ farmer? He helped organize a book profiling scores of these so-called ‘new farmers,’ and the writers found much worth noting: open-mindedness, willingness to try new things, cooperation skills, a community focus, commitment to sustainable practices … these traits are what bring Ikerd hope for America’s agricultural future. (The book, The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation is available free on the SARE website, and we highly recommend it to interested parties.)

And I hope that Ikerd’s hope comes to fruition. Either way, his view is good to remember at moments of bad news. Because the reality is, we can’t do this alone. Casey and I are only one farm, and for the food system to improve there needs to be change on mass: more small farms committing to sustainable practices, more eaters committing to local farmers, and—yes—more government support of all the necessary education and infrastructure in between.

In closing, I guess I’ll say let’s all keep our chins up. No frowns. No pity parties (at least, not any more today). No whining. We are building a system, one eater, one farm, one vote at a time. Persistence pays.

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2 Responses to Farming & politics: to hope or despair?

  1. Naomi Montgomery says:

    As always, I love your honesty and mulit-faceted thoughts. Neil and I landed in North Plains and are settling in and farming with a land partnership. Life of the roving farmer! Had to say a quick hello and your blog is great… we will write more soon. We’re only 35 miles or so away are looking forward to some intense farm and politics discussions this winter!

  2. Courie says:

    One thing that’s interesting to me is that our customers could really care less if we’re certified organic. It’s an interesting aside to them, but once you have a customers trust it really seems to go a long way.

    On our website and market banner we chose our words carefully, “…growing hierloom produce and herbs without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.” A mouthful huh? That’s what the over-involved organic certfication system drives poor farmers to. At least James was working in organic co-ops for a decade meaning he knew plenty about how it all worked and rambled that statement off the top of his brainiac head.

    We’ll certify eventually too but we seem to be doing financially well and thriving in the communities we serve.

    Ag is serious business but it is not sustainable. Perhaps organic farmers in 100 years will be all that’s left. (Let’s just hope there’s some soil for them…)

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