Small farms fight for farm bill equality
By Ryan Satkowiak
Located along OH-53 just outside of Tiffin, Ohio, the Riehm Farm looks just like an average small, family-owned farm.
There is no driveway, just a 20-square-foot gravel patch located in from of a storage warehouse. The home of John and Diane Riehm, located 30 paces to the right, flanks the buildings.
The majority of the 300 acres that John Riehm farms lie barren. It is early April, and he has not yet planted the corn and soybeans that will populate the fields.
Behind the warehouse stands a trio of greenhouses. Inside of them are rows of vegetables, stretching from one end of the greenhouse to the other.
Tomatoes, cabbage, onions, peppers, broccoli and various herbs: They are just a few of the vegetables that the Riehms harvest and sell to the local community.
“By growing these now, I’ll be picking them by the time everyone else starts planting,” John Riehm says with a grin on his face.
However, these vegetables are not what keep Riehm Farm operating. While those crops represent the bulk of what is sold at local farmers markets, Riehm Farm gets no federal subsidy for these crops, according to the Environmental Working Group’s federal subsidy database.
Instead, their subsidies — or, federal money granted to farm owners for the crops they grow — come from corn and soybeans — commodity crops.
That imbalance in payments has caused for John and Diane Riehm to fight for a change in subsidy payments. Namely, they have petitioned Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown to fight for a change in the 2012 Farm Bill.
A Growing Problem
Because the vegetables he grows gets him no federal aid, John Riehm only devotes a small portion of his land to growing them. Only 25 of the 300 acres he farms are used to grow vegetables.
So what goes into the remaining 275 acres? Corn and soybeans — the 21st century American cash crops.
The 2008 Farm Bill — the program that determines the portion of the federal budget that will be paid to farm owners — heavily favored farms that grew one, or several, of the so-called cash crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice.
In the fiscal year 2011, nearly 90 percent of commodity program payments and crop insurance subsidies were paid for those five crops, with corn (38 percent), wheat (19 percent) and soybeans (16 percent) leading the way, according to the Congressional Research Services’ preview of the 2012 Farm Bill.
In fact, corn has become the most financed crop in America in terms of subsidies. From 1995-2010, the federal government has paid just north of $77 billion in corn subsidies to approximately 1.6 million farms across the nation, according to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy database. That number is more than double the $32 billion that was provided in wheat subsidies during the same time frame.
In that same 15-year span, Riehm Farm was given about $150,000 in corn subsidies and $3,000 in wheat.
Many small farmers are upset about the federal government’s use of these commodity crops. The corn, wheat and soybeans are primarily used to feed livestock, not people. Corn is also used in the production of alcohol, fuel and other household goods. Diane Riehm believes that sends the wrong message to the American farmer.
“When you look at what type of product they are growing versus what type of product we are growing, there is no value in feeding people,” she said regarding the government’s use of commodity crops. “They put more value on corn with fuel and ethanol. Of course they’re going to say it goes into food because they put corn syrup in everything. They’re supporting the grain and they need to spread that out and support everything else.”
However, reforming the Farm Bill is difficult to do because of a tie in that has little to do with farming: food stamps.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (also known as the food stamps program) is approximately two-thirds of the farm bill’s budget.
“They should call it a ‘food bill’ instead of a ‘farm bill,’ because [the government] is misrepresenting and letting people think farmers are getting all this money,” John Riehm said. “It should be separated so people know that’s actually food stamps, not agriculture.”
However, according to Sara Sciammacco, press secretary for the Environmental Working Group, SNAP is one of the positive aspects of the farm bill. In particular, there has been a push to encourage people on food stamps to purchase more local fruits and vegetables.
“In the newly released Senate Agriculture Committee 2012 farm bill proposal we applauded the provisions of the bill that support healthy diets, expand links between local farmers and consumers and help new and beginning farmers,” she said in an email. “In particular, we thanked Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., for her efforts to expand incentives that encourage low-income consumers to purchase more fruits and vegetables and increase access to local foods at farmers’ markets.”
There have been no talks among politicians to remove SNAP from the farm bill, said Katherine Ferguson, the Rural Policy Director for Senator Brown. The reason for this, she said, is because food stamps was something that was originally drawn up by the Department of Agriculture, and keeping SNAP under that jurisdiction makes it easier to deal with supply issues.
Fighting for change
Small farms are not receiving as much of a cut of these federal subsidies as larger farms. The top 20 percent of farms in the United States received 80 percent of subsidies in 2010, with an average payment of $24,628 per farm, while the bottom 80 percent of farms only received $1,494 on average in subsidies, according to the Environmental Working Group’s federal subsidy database. Because of this disparity, the small farmers are trying to fight for more equality.
The Riehms have joined up with a group of local small farms to petition Senator Brown to fight in U.S. Congress to get higher subsidy payments for vegetables and the addition of a “compete clause” to the Farm Bill. This clause would put a cap on the amount of subsidies one farm could receive, causing a greater distribution of wealth.
John Riehm points out that the average age of family farmers in America is 60 years old and rising. He adds that few young people are joining the profession because they cannot afford to get started up because there isn’t much government help available.
Because the large farms make their money solely growing commodity crops and not vegetables, John Riehm wonders where that will leave the food industry in 20 or 30 years if small farms go out of business because of lack of funds or lack of farmers to run them.
“What happens down that line, is there going to be enough small farmers growing vegetables to feed us? Or are we going to have to import all of our crops from other countries, where they spray whatever they want on it?” he said.
However, according to Ferguson, there is not a substantial movement anywhere in America to get direct support for fruits and vegetables. She added that Senator Brown is not interested in pursuing that either.
Rather, Senator Brown wants to make sure there is crop insurance available for fruits and vegetables to cover things such as transportation or storage since those crops are not as easy to store as corn or wheat, Ferguson said.
Spreading the Word
John Riehm said that he doesn’t envision receiving much federal aid for the Farm Bill this go-around. While the farm’s federal aid peaked at $52,568 in 1999, it has decreased significantly since.
Riehm Farm has not received five-digit aid since 2006, and received only $4,818 in 2010, according to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy database.
In order to combat that, he and his wife go around the community trying to inform people about where their food comes from. He preaches “shortening the food chain” as much as possible.
His main pitch is the difference between foods you purchase form a local farm, versus food bought from a corporate grocery store. John Riehm said in grocery stores, you don’t know what type of pesticides or other chemicals the foods have been treated with. When buying from a local farm, you know exactly what you will be getting.
“We’re educating people where their food comes from and what is on their food,” he said. “We are very big on nutrition because that’s one thing I think people need to get back to is that shorter food chain. That is what is leading to a lot of our health problems because we aren’t eating properly.
“But even then, I’m guilty of that too,” he says with a laugh while point to the bottle of Pepsi sitting in front of him.
The Riehms also run a community supported agriculture, or CSA, which functions as a private contract between the farm and the consumer. In this transaction, an individual or group interested in purchasing crops from the farm will pay up front and pick up the crops when they are ready.
The benefit of this are it serves as a safety net for farmers. Since the government does not pay subsidies for vegetables not sold, overplanting could be dangerous for a farm. With the CSA, the farmer knows exactly how much of a crop needs to be planted.
The up-front money also helps with operating costs, allowing the farm to keep it floating, John Riehm said.
Diane Riehm said this program has been successful in Wisconsin. She added that Ohio is behind the curve, but is catching up, citing a “food summit” that took place in Columbus this year.
“We talk about how we can all join forces to make our food more sustainable and keep the money here,” she said. “It’s the same thing [in Wisconsin]. The farmer gets a contract for his crop before he puts all that expense into it. When he puts the thousands of dollars into that crop, he knows he is going to be able to sell it.”