The risk in the disconnect

FARGO, N.D. -- I've been thinking a lot about agricultural policy lately, as Congress straps in for a final debate over the 2013 (or was it 2012, or 2011?) farm bill.

FARGO, N.D. -- I've been thinking a lot about agricultural policy lately, as Congress straps in for a final debate over the 2013 (or was it 2012, or 2011?) farm bill.

Congress is testing the old mantra that you can't pass farm price support programs without tying them to nutrition programs. This connection has seemed axiomatic -- not because of some need to "connect" farmers to food and constituents, but because urban Democrats won't vote for farm programs if some of their urban constituents don't have access to this assistance.

Ironically, the biggest proponents of the split are the conservative Republicans who want to trim back food assistance and trim back both the support for farmers and for food assistance recipients.

Personally, I think we're witnessing a high wire act, where the much-vaunted farm safety net might be the victim. A lot is at stake with federal farm policies, more than most of our urban cousins are conscious of. Many smart and well-meaning people have no idea how to evaluate farm policy, and won't know they've slit their own throat until they go to turn their heads.

Recently, a friend sent me a copy of an essay by Melissa Walker, a history professor at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.D., titled "Contemporary Agrarianism: A Reality Check," Walker defines what "good farming" is, which gives us a hint about what federal policies are needed.


A former president of the Agricultural History Society, Walker describes the "contemporary agrarianism" and how nonfarmers -- "urbanists, novelists, journalists, foodies, chefs" and others -- have taken a bigger role in defining what "good agriculture" is.

Walker quoted David Danboom in a 1991 Agricultural History Society presidential address, defining agrarianism as "the celebration of agriculture and rural life for the positive impact thereof on the individual and society."

Danboom, in 1991, said agrarianism, whether always practical, is a "vital and important point of view" because it forces farmers to "confront ourselves and what we have become, to take stock of our values and to consider seriously the nature and purpose of life."

Today, Walker wrote, there are all kinds of nonfarmers out there who want to define "good farming" as what "makes people healthier," or promotes a "just society," or "preserves the earth and its network of life." Walker agreed with those sentiments, but concluded that "good farming" provides a good living for the farmer.

She noted that organic-style farming, if it could feed more people, would require more labor and would make for more expensive food. Poorly defined "local food" is not always better food, she said, and it doesn't provide the variety and year-round availability of food available through trade. Walker doubts whether "sustainable farming" could be a "source of an adequate living for very many people."

I grow a garden, partly because I like to watch it grow, partly because I like how it tastes and feels, but also because it reminds me of the skill required to produce food. I wish Americans -- all of them -- would connect the food they eat to how it's grown. I wish the foodies and food aid recipients could spend some time in a garden, if only for the lesson in humility.

Walker wrote that under traditional measures, policy makers, farmers and others have determined whether an ag policy works by how well farmers are doing.

She acknowledged that some agricultural policies have hurt the environment. She said sometimes we subsidize the wrong things. That may be, but we'll regret it if Congress passes nutrition programs but fails to provide the corresponding farm programs that undergird them.

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