Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) stands out in the drab halls of his Capitol Hill office building. When we meet, he’s wearing a neon green bicycle lapel pin, a nod to his longtime enthusiasm for biking and his membership in the Congressional Bike Caucus. His staffer sports a neon orange one. Blumenauer’s omnipresent bow tie and hip, clear-framed glasses are more signs that he is not your typical Beltway politician. Outside his office on Capitol Hill, a rainbow flag hangs beside the American flag.
The representative from Portland also stands out for his interest in agriculture policy, uncommon for a politician from an urban district. A longtime advocate for sustainable agriculture and an outspoken critic of the current administration’s environmental policies, Blumenauer has worked for years to move the needle on food and farm policy. In June of this year, along with Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), he introduced legislation to protect pollinator bees and support diversity in the food supply. The legislation was supported by dozens of environmental groups.
Now, Blumenauer is taking on the policy that most shapes our nation’s food and agriculture landscapes: the farm bill. The next version of the trillion-dollar omnibus bill is due for reauthorization in 2018, and discussion is already well underway. The farm bill funds nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (around 79 percent of the bill); as well as all major agricultural programs such as crop subsidies and insurance (around 14 percent); conservation programs (around 6 percent); and research.
The massive bill is also ripe for improvement, Blumenauer says. Today, he is introducing the Food and Farm Act, proposed legislation that would constitute a major departure from many of the bill’s core elements. If passed, the Act would implement many of the food-policy reforms that sustainable agriculture policy advocates have long supported.
“We continue to pay too much to the wrong people to grow the wrong food in the wrong places,” Blumenauer explained in his office on Capitol Hill recently. “We don’t have [enough] incentives for innovation, for helping new, beginning, and small farmers. We don’t put enough emphasis on the opportunities for good nutrition. So, for me, [the Food and Farm Act] is an opportunity to pull out of the shadows a bill that has so much importance that people don’t appreciate.”
Blumenauer has been working on this legislation since 2015, when he began talking to his constituents and food-policy stakeholders in Oregon with an initiative called “Sing Your Own Farm Bill.” He solicited suggestions from thousands of people for how to improve upon the existing legislation. His findings from those conversations have been distilled into a report, Growing Opportunities, which lays out many of the ideas that are included in his new legislation.
Reimagining Farm Support
Some of Blumenauer’s major proposals involve reform to crop subsidies and reformed insurance programs. His legislation would expand conservation requirements for farmers receiving federal crop insurance; make it easier for farmers with diverse crops to receive insurance; and cap crop insurance premium subsidies to $50,000. He also proposes capping annual subsidy benefits at $125,000 per farm in order to more equitably distribute federal funds.
“Around 95 percent of the current subsidies are going to crops that are then turned into animal feed, fuel, or processed food,” says Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of the food and technology program at Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group that worked with Blumenauer to shape the bill. “That’s not what America needs. This bill would really shift a lot of resources and still provide support to farmers that are growing those crops.” Currently, she says, the top 1 percent of farmers by size and farm income receive 27 percent of the subsidies, averaging $1.7 million per farm.
“Those are not farmers that need the subsidies the most,” Hamerschlag says. “Those farmers are very successful and will be successful without taxpayer funds. And we could redirect those resources to support investments in rural infrastructure so that we can get all of the local, grass-fed, organic meat that consumers are demanding, for instance.”
The focus on boosting sustainable meat is not a random example. Blumenauer’s bill includes two different programs that would support farmer and rancher practices to reduce the use of routine antibiotics. Within a large conservation program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, for instance, the bill would create a pool of funds specifically for pasture-based animal farms, so they would be on a level playing field with industrial-scale farms receiving federal support.
It also proposes a program geared toward increasing support for infrastructure loans and technical support for processing high-value, sustainable meat, poultry, and dairy products to make it more viable for farms that want to sell in local and regional markets.
And, says Hamerschlag, it also includes a section requiring “factory farms to have to report their greenhouse gas emissions” and reduces subsidies for the large animal-waste facilities that factory farms often require in order to be profitable. She adds, “there’s a lot of attention to animal welfare”—a piece of the discussion that has mainly been left out of past farm bills.
Additionally, Blumenauer proposes expanding support for beginning farmers and ranchers. The 2014 Farm Bill allocated about $100 million to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, but Blumenauer suggests adding more granularity to existing programs, including incentivizing farmers to participate in existing succession-planning programs, and funding new farmers to attend business-planning courses.
A Farm Bill for the Environment
One important element of Blumenauer’s approach is boldly re-framing the farm bill as a matter of environmental protection. “This is going to be the most important environmental bill that this Congress will consider,” he says.
For example, within the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the bill proposes a major focus on pesticide production. According to Hamerschlag, “60 percent of the CSP program would go to basically water protection, pest management, and soil conservation—three of the most important environmental issues on our radar.”
The last farm bill included a $6 billion cut to conservation efforts, which give farmers financial incentives to use more sustainable practices and retire environmentally sensitive land from production.
Author and journalist Michael Pollan, who is giving the keynote talk at the launch of the Food and Farm Act today in Washington, D.C., commended Blumenauer’s commitment to food and farm policy issues. “Historically, [the farm bill has] been treated as a very parochial, special-interest piece of legislation,” Pollan says. But, he adds, that it “is the most important piece of health legislation likely to pass next year and probably the most important piece of environmental legislation likely to pass next year.” As a consequence, “anyone who’s concerned about climate change, anyone who’s concerned about public health, has a stake.”
Pollan also notes that because Blumenauer isn’t on a Congressional agriculture committee, he has a unique vantage point from which to effect change. “Earl is one of the few outsiders who has taken the trouble, title by title, to understand [the farm bill],” he says. “That in itself is sending a message that the ag committees can’t be trusted with the [bill].”
The lawmakers on the ag committees receive lobbying dollars that likely influence their approach to the bill. According to Investigate Midwest, “At least 600 companies spent roughly a half billion dollars in total lobbying during the two years the 2014 Farm Bill was moving on Capitol Hill.”
As Pollan puts it, the committees “have had these playpens to themselves for too long,” and “the key to changing the food system is getting other people involved.”
There has traditionally been a division between rural and urban interests in farm bill debates, but Blumenauer says, “We’re trying to have people understand that we all benefit from a farm bill that is more effective, that helps more Americans.” He adds that in farm-rich states outside the Midwest, such as New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, people “don’t have vast amounts of commodities, [but] they are engaged in value-added agriculture. There are people who care about animal welfare, people who are fighting against hunger, who are concerned about obesity, who want to protect wildlife habitat. So, this is potentially a very significant coalition.”
Even so, the Food and Farm Act must be met with a great deal of campaigning if it’s going to impact the final bill. And because Blumenauer and his fellow reformers are working outside the committees, the bill will most likely be broken down into bite-sized parts and introduced as amendments to the more official bill.
It’s an opportunity “to both educate and mobilize and show Congress and the ag committee that there are a lot of stakeholders out there that care a lot about our food and farming system want to see alternatives to the farm bill,” says Hamerschlag.
In the coming months, Blumenauer plans to build broader support for the bill, and keep pushing for farm bill reform on the Hill. He emphasizes that for the Act and similar reforms to pass, “[it’s] going to be driven by people. It’s going to be the increasingly well-organized people dealing with the specialty crops, organics—people who are dealing with everything from community gardens to farmers’ markets. These people are getting better organized. I think there’s a really broad potential coalition that is going to play a larger role than the various bureaucracies.”