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Save family farms, save America; other news

(Friday, April 28, 2006 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Save family farms, save America
2. Overhaul U.S. farm policy
3. Biofuels: Who benefits? Small growers or big business?

1. Save family farms, save America

Willie Nelson, AlterNet

It's time to abandon the failed model of industrial agriculture and join the Good Food movement: embrace healthy, delicious food that makes the entire country stronger.


2. Overhaul U.S. farm policy

By Jim French
Prairie Writers Circle

There was a time when investing in rural America meant something personal to most Americans. Many of us are only two or three generations away from a nation of farmers and rural communities. It was a time when people drank milk delivered to their doorsteps by local dairies, or ate bread baked within a hundred miles, or purchased meat from the neighborhood butcher. But rural America has changed. And so, too, Washington must change the way it invests our tax dollars in agriculture and rural communities.

Consider: -- The Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service last year showed a correlation between counties receiving the highest crop subsidies and those that suffered the most rapid population decline.
-- Two-thirds of the nation's farmers receive little or no benefit from farm programs because they produce "non-program" foods and crops like fruits, vegetables, meat or hay.
-- More than 92 percent of all farmers rely heavily on off-farm income.

Soon Congress will fashion the 2007 farm bill. Big decisions need to be made.

Grain and cotton growers have seen their market prices steadily decline since 1996, while their expenses have grown. Public subsidies help keep these farmers afloat. When the price farmers receive falls below the cost of production, the subsidies cover the difference. Because there effectively is no limit on the number of bushels that can receive a subsidy, farmers have an incentive to produce as much as possible. This causes surpluses that drive down prices and fuel the need for continued subsidies -- a vicious cycle. And let's not forget the effect our production subsidies have on the farmers and rural residents of the poorest nations of the world. In the case of cotton, for example, U.S. subsidies have caused surpluses that have led to a lower world price. This means lower incomes for millions of cotton farmers in West Africa -- and less money to dig a new well, or build school rooms and medical clinics. U.S. corn subsidies have had a similar effect on farmers in Mexico. When incomes go too low, these people often must migrate to cities to find work, and end up in places like Dakar or Cairo, maybe Milan or London, or even Los Angeles or Wichita. Reforming U.S. farm programs is not a silver bullet for the problem of poverty and rural decline in the world. The farmers of poor nations also must have improved crop genetics and agricultural education. Nevertheless, reform could contribute to a world where rural people can earn honest livings and a better life. What might be a recipe for an improved farm bill in 2007?

First, public money should not be linked to production, a practice that only distorts the market place. Instead, our tax dollars should be invested in ways that deliver broad public benefits, stabilize farm numbers and rural communities, and do no harm to poor farmers in other countries. One way is to provide more money for conservation. If fully funded and implemented, the Conservation Security Program could help support U.S. farm income by encouraging farmers to protect our air, water, soil and wildlife habitat. This program could also encourage energy conservation on the farm and the use of new, cleaner forms of energy. Second, we need to invest more in rural development. A recent Farm Bureau report said, "Farmers are more dependent on rural communities than rural communities are dependent on farmers." Farmers today need off-farm income. If they are to keep their farms and stay in their communities, they need jobs nearby. Let's promote such jobs by providing incentives that encourage entrepreneurs to build businesses in small places. Growth in rural jobs and population can in turn provide new and local markets for a greater diversity of local food production, which also should be promoted in the new farm bill. Rural America has been the wellspring of this country's leadership and values. We have drawn from and benefited from that source. Now it is time to replenish farm country in wise and sustainable ways.


Jim French farms and ranches in Reno County, Kan., and works as U.S. lead field organizer for Oxfam America, an international development agency. He wrote this for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

3. Biofuels: Who benefits? Small growers or big business?

Source: Common Dreams http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0414-22.htm
[Apr 15, 2006]

SYNOPSIS: Ethanol could be a huge boost to small farmers and the rural economy. But unless we are vigilant, the big winners could be the usual suspects.

When President Bush suddenly embraced wood chips and biofuels on national television, renewable energy producers received a prime-time injection of hope. Ethanol backers forecast a boon for farmers and the environment. Yet serious questions remain about whether ethanol merely enables our addiction to an unsustainable auto-centered society -- unless it's part of a broader shift in consumption and production.

Equally critical is the matter of what a carbohydrate economy means for America's two million farmers (by no means a monolithic lot), and for the future of sustainable agriculture. Will biofuels benefit smaller growers, or just large-scale producers and agribusiness? How will pressures for increased production and reduced energy prices effect farmers? Would small and mid-sized growers fare any better in the energy economy than they have in a rapidly consolidating food economy that has driven so many off the land and into poverty?

The stakes are significant: Protecting smaller-scale, diversified farms is intrinsic to ecological stewardship and rural economic health, sustainable farming advocates (and some biofuels proponents) argue. A major biofuels expansion could spur yet more large-scale industrial agriculture, which often relies heavily on petroleum -based fertilizers and pesticides and deploys fuel-guzzling farm machinery. Pressures for large-volume production and cheap energy might ultimately harm smaller farmers and the environment -- unless there are explicit policies to protect both.

The exploding ethanol market has brought U.S. corn growers -- and agribusiness firms like Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill -- a harvest of fresh cash: a crop of 1.25 billion bushels in 2004 (projected to be 1.6 billion by the end of this year), worth more than $3 billion, according to a study prepared for the Renewable Fuels Association. Ethanol's direct and spin-off effects, the trade group says, include an estimated 147,206 jobs created, $14 billion added to the U.S. gross domestic product, and a trade benefit from reducing oil imports by 143 million barrels. Ninety-five plants across the country, 46 of them farmer-owned, now produce 4 billion gallons a year (1 billion gallons of it by ADM alone) of ethanol. Another 31 plants are under construction.

A growing portion of America's corn harvest -- roughly 18 percent, up from just 8 percent in 2000, according to USDA data -- is now funneled to fuel production. With corn prices consistently below the cost of production and fuel prices marching upward, ethanol has provided flexibility to some growers, particularly those in farmer-owned cooperatives. "Even at the small farm level you can see real opportunities to improve the farm economy by creating new markets and new ownerships," says Patrick Mazza, research director for Climate Solutions, a renewable-energy group based in Washington state. "What's nice for the ethanol farmers in those co-ops is that when corn prices are high they can make money on corn and when corn prices are low they can make money on ethanol."

The epicenter of farmer success so far is Minnesota, where clean-fuel standards and producer incentives have spurred an ethanol boom led by 12 farmer co-ops. In Minnesota's southwestern corner, the small city of Luverne is home to the farmer-owned Cornerstone Co-op, which churns out more than 20 million gallons of corn ethanol annually. Launched in 1998, the cooperative has attracted 220 area farmers who must pony up an initial investment of at least $10,000 and deliver 5,000 or more bushels of corn each year. According to manager David Kolsrud, the plant produces a healthy return of 30-plus cents per gallon, and "through the first eight years of operation [farmers] have gotten back over five times their original investment ... From a rural development standpoint we feel very strongly that community-based plants with farmer ownership have a more significant value to the area than having outside ownership."

But as ethanol undergoes an inevitable process of industrialization, and capital requirements intensify, small and medium-sized farmers could be squeezed out unless policies are explicitly designed to promote them. Kolsrud warily observes that "the industry trend is toward larger facilities which are either owned by farmers, or, as in many cases, are owned by Wall Street investors and other bigger entities getting into the business." Kolsrud remains optimistic that small co-ops can survive -- "for a while" -- by selling ethanol through larger marketing alliances, but the long-term picture for farmers is unclear.

This corporate presence is nothing new, says John Crabtree, analyst for the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska-based farm advocacy group. "People need to understand that ethanol production is already an incredibly concentrated market. Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill control the lion's share of ethanol production."

Ethanol leader ADM's market share has actually declined from a stunningly high 60 percent to a still-worrisome 25 to 30 percent in recent years. But a recent analysis by USDA agricultural economists concluded, "The fuel ethanol industry may very well be in transition toward an inevitable concentration of ownership into the hands of a few large processing firms." The market is driven by large-scale gasoline refining firms, which "don't want to deal with all these small plants," and a "virtual consolidation of ethanol processing" is taking place. (ADM didn't respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)

New biorefinery developments are trending away from farmer ownership. In 1999, farmers owned all new plants being constructed, but by 2006 "they owned just 19% of the 1.7 billion gallons that will flow from 29 new plants going up or expanding," according to Successful Farming magazine.

"You have some of the same players as in the food sector, Cargill and ADM, whose interest is in buying low and selling high," points out George Boody, executive director of the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project, who wants to ensure that biofuels are grown sustainably. "Massive production of a few crops is the best way to get there, and that typically doesn't bode well for small to mid-sized farmers because the margins get too tight and the acreage requirements grow and grow."

Farming expert and author Marty Strange, a onetime director of the Center for Rural Affairs, says ethanol's growth, like the rest of agricultural industrialization, brings little hope for smaller producers. "There's no question that large-scale ethanol production depends on large-scale grain production. The small-scale diversified grain farmer is not what the ethanol industry relies on."

Another dilemma: By edging out diversified farming, large-scale corn mono-cropping could weaken local food security, requiring more long-distance transport of foods (already averaging roughly 1,800 miles per item) -- thus more diesel pollution from the trucks that haul foodstuffs. Meanwhile, EPA efforts to repair the Gulf of Mexico's 10,000-square-mile hypoxic zone, a massive oxygen-killing algae bloom created in good part by runoff from fertilizers and pesticides applied to corn and other grain crops, may call for less corn -- not more. Likewise, some advocates emphasize the need for more localized ethanol (and biodiesel) production, to support farmers and avoid the ironies of cross-country shipping of renewable fuels.

These economic and ecological tensions are generating increased collaboration between sustainable farming and clean-energy advocates. Jim Kleinschmit, rural communities program director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, cites a growing concern that biofuels "be produced in a way that's sustainable for the landscape, for the farmer's pocketbook, and for the community." Patrick Mazza and others say that ethanol and other biomass energy can be produced in a way that sustains farmers and the environment, if policy incentives are designed to promote both.

An array of ideas are afloat to encourage a more sustainable biofuels expansion: a diversified renewable energy policy that, rather than expanding corn crops, promotes more wind power and cellulosic energy from switchgrass and crop residues (which may favor localized, small-scale production); a federal version of Minnesota's model, creating targeted incentives for farmer co-ops; and increased research spending by the USDA and Department of Energy to develop smaller-scale biofuels processing plants. Negotiations for the 2007 federal farm bill, already simmering, will feature a battle between agribusiness' push for monocropping of cheap commodities, and family farm groups' efforts to raise crop prices and rein in corporate control.

Iowa corn and soybean farmer George Naylor, president of the National Family Farm Coalition, warns that without proper supports, intense pressures for cheap energy will further imperil farmers' frayed pocketbooks. "It's an absolute must that there be public policy to make sure that the environment is taken into account, how land is being used, and whether family farmers benefit at all from it." Such policy, says Naylor, must incorporate the intertwined concerns of small farmers, sustainable agriculture, and clean energy -- "so it isn't just a matter of everyone going out and plowing the hell out of the countryside thinking there's going to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."

Christopher D. Cook's writings have appeared in Harper's, The Economist, the Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis (New Press).