Rep. Earl Blumenauer Wants to Help You Care About the Farm Bill | Civil Eats

Faces of the Farm Bill: Why Rep. Earl Blumenauer Remains Dedicated to Change

As he reintroduces his Food and Farm Act, the Oregon Democrat is pushing for more support for young farmers and small-scale operations, reforming crop subsidies, and more crop diversity on farms.

Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), stands at a podium talking to constituents and politicians. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Blumenauer's office)

This interview is an installment of our new series, Faces of the Farm Bill, where we humanize the real-world impacts of ag policy. The first article in the series is an interview with Esperanza Fonseca, a SNAP recipient turned food justice activist.

Most of the D.C. lawmakers behind our food and agriculture policy are pragmatists. Every five years, they stick to the same old script, tweak a few programs in small ways to make farm and hunger groups happy, and pass a business-as-usual farm bill.

Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) is not most lawmakers. Known for his ever-present bowtie and bicycle lapel pin, the latter of which sends an immediate signal (to those who don’t already know he represents Portlandia) that he is a crunchy, eco-conscious progressive. And when it comes to the farm bill negotiations, many of the powerful players in D.C. agricultural circles write him off, especially since he’s not even on the Agriculture Committee.

But Blumenauer has been calling attention to real food and farm issues that affect people’s lives—and that no other politicians will touch—since he was sworn into Congress 26 years ago. Long before Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) gained traction as one of the only players willing to talk about regulating the meat industry, Blumenauer advocated for shifting funding away from large, industrial, confinement-based animal operations. He has also repeatedly introduced bills attempting to cancel the registration of common pesticides known to kill bees and harm ecosystems.

At the end of March, as the 2023 Farm Bill cycle picked up momentum, he reintroduced the Food and Farm Act, an updated version of a bill he tried to get passed during the last farm bill negotiations in 2018. Among many sweeping changes, the bill would establish new titles in the farm bill dedicated to cutting food waste and ensuring animal welfare; direct more resources toward local food, beginning farmers, and healthy food access; and limit and shift farm subsidies to reward smaller, diversified farms.

Civil Eats caught up with Blumenauer as the recently passed Republican bill written to exchange deep spending cuts for raising the nation’s debt ceiling made its way to the House floor. Due to attempts to further restrict Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits within it, debates around the bill have been bleeding into conversations around the farm bill. And Blumenauer was particularly amped up around what he saw as the hypocrisy of limiting “food stamps” for poor people while maintaining a willingness to pay subsidies to commodity farmers regardless of their income.

“The stakes are very high,” he said. “We’ve been squeezing out small and medium-sized farmers and ranchers. We have been subsidizing a diet that makes people sick. I mean, this is the future of the planet. It’s the future of the agricultural system.”

We spoke to Blumenauer about those issues, his other 2023 Farm Bill priorities, and why he continues to pedal uphill against the D.C. winds after all this time.

The debt ceiling bill that Republicans are likely to send to the House floor this week includes proposals to expand work requirements for SNAP recipients, which you oppose. This conversation seems to happen every farm bill cycle. Why is it such a flash point?

Rep. Earl Blumenauer's official portrait.

Republicans have been doing this since the Gingrich Revolution [in the 1990s]. They push this mythology that food stamps are lavishing support on poor people so they don’t have to work. This time, it has taken on increased intensity, I think, because they are desperate to change the subject from the potential of wrecking the global economy. They’ve offered up something that sounds good to their base, but it doesn’t really pencil out.

The vast majority of people who get nutrition assistance are old. They’re [children], they’re disabled. And in areas where they’ve tried to force people to work, they find out that there aren’t jobs available, and that it takes more time and energy to try and administer it. I mean, it’s just nonsensical, it’s expensive, and it’s not fair.

Part of what I am insisting that we look at is, if you really want to impose work requirements and income limits, don’t just focus on poor people and their food. Let’s look at rich farmers. Almost 20,000 farmers got an average of a million dollars in subsidy payments over 37 consecutive years. There are no income limits, no requirement that they actually work on a farm. Subsidy payments get mailed to high-rises in New York and penthouses in Chicago. It’s outrageous.

Your Food and Farm Act includes some changes to those commodity crop subsidy programs. What would those look like?

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What we want to do is cap them and limit them. And we want to make sure that there’s some connection to the land. As I took our presentation around Oregon, talking to ranchers and farmers, people weren’t upset with the notion of having some limitation. The vast majority of farmers and ranchers in Oregon get far fewer subsidies.

“Part of what I am insisting that we look at is, if you really want to impose work requirements and income limits, don’t just focus on poor people and their food. Let’s look at rich farmers.”

Indeed, people who grow what we call food—fruits and vegetables, nuts and berries—don’t get anything at all. [Commodity programs only benefit growers of row crops like corn, soy, and wheat and about 80 percent of crop insurance dollars go to those same crops.] The crop insurance program, which is lavishly subsidized, gets a guaranteed rate of return far above what the market would require. And some of the subsidies go to companies that are foreign. It just defies the imagination why we would go after poor Americans and not have the same standard for rich farmers.

It’s interesting to hear that ranchers and farmers in Oregon are supportive of some limitations. These ideas about limits on commodity and crop insurance payments are typically seen as a political nonstarter in D.C. Why is that?

Well, it’s a nonstarter if people don’t pay attention. Take a national poll and ask, “Should there be some limitations on agricultural subsidy payments?” An overwhelming number of people would say yes. The reason that people don’t pay attention is [they] have not been able to understand.

“Take a national poll and ask, ‘Should there be some limitations on agricultural subsidy payments?’ An overwhelming number of people would say yes.”

I’ve experienced that debating on the floor of the House: I find that many of the proponents [of crop insurance] don’t fully understand the facts or how the programs work. It is deliberately complex so that people can’t follow it. They’re confused, and then they can be misled. You know, I spent an entire cross-country flight several farm bills ago trying to understand the dairy program. A six-hour flight across the country. And all I had after was a headache and very little knowledge. It’s incomprehensible to the average person, and frankly, most people in the agricultural sector are not well-versed.

This is your fifth farm bill as a congressman. How have your priorities changed? Is this Food and Farm Act different compared to the one you put forward in 2017?

My interests have broadened as I understand more about the ins and outs of the various programs and what people need. We start each farm bill cycle working from the ground up, so to speak. It’s not just reintroducing the same legislation. We spend a lot of time talking to environmental groups and farm groups and looking at the needs that develop.

For example, beginning farmers: This is an area that I’m obsessed with. There are young people who want to be involved in food production, and it’s so hard for them to get started. The average farmer is [close to] 60 years of age, and they’re looking at what happens to their land after they’re gone. Not all of them have family members that want to pick up the reins. We’re working to make sure we can ease that transition. We can work with farmers, ranchers, and environmental groups on conservation easements. There are different mechanisms to meet their needs financially and in terms of their legacies.

“What is different now than any of the other farm bills I’ve worked on is that there’s a broader awareness of some of these challenges.”

This is also a very important year in terms of what we’re doing with climate challenges. Agricultural practices are one of the major areas where we can deal with climate change. Climate change is threatening farm life around America. We can [encourage] the use of cover crops and no-till agriculture keeping the carbon in the soil. It’s very important to make it easier for people who want to become [certified] organic. . . to help them transition. These are areas that have come into focus and are a higher priority for me.

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What is different than any of the other farm bills I’ve worked on is that there’s a broader awareness of some of these challenges. There is greater interest in trying to promote sustainable agriculture and understanding the potential of being able to be a low-carbon operation.

We also have an animal protection title that we haven’t had before. Animal protection is a high priority for me. And I would say that one of the other new developments in this conversation is that . . . the American diet that we are subsidizing is making our citizens sick. The costs of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease—these are massive costs for the American public and for the health-care system. Fifty percent of chronic conditions are directly tied to the American diet, which is tied to the agricultural patterns we’re subsidizing. There are more intersecting interests.

There’s certainly more awareness of the connection between agriculture and the climate crisis and some of these health issues than there has been before, but in terms of the kinds of changes you’re proposing—to commodity programs, crop insurance, regulating animal agriculture—these are not popular with your colleagues on either side of the aisle. I imagine it’s a bit lonely.

No, no, no, no. I mean, sometimes I quote Samuel Johnson about second marriages representing the triumph of hope over experience . . . but I do think things are fundamentally different. I have been working on this since I came to Congress, but every year I find more and more interest, the case gets stronger for reform, and more and more people are getting involved.

Each farm bill, there are more elements introduced to support healthy food. We haven’t had the restructuring of commodity programs or crop insurance, but the case gets stronger, and as more and more people get involved, there is greater potential to make those changes. And now, when the Republicans are trying to make a showdown over government spending and deficits, this is a perfect time to spotlight their hypocrisy to continue the gravy train for the richest farmers—not the average farmer, but the richest farmers and big agribusiness.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. James Rodell
    Thank you Lisa and Earl. Human and planetary health need strengthening and your efforts are right on!


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