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Second round of Farm Bill hearings in Washington continues to be dominated by Agri-business

April 3, 2012

Last month we reported on the Farm Bill hearings that had already taken place in Washington, hearings that were chaired by Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow.

In those first two hearings we noted that those invited to address the Senate Agriculture Committee were disproportionately people from Agri-business and trade agencies, not small farmers.

Since then, an additional two hearings have been held by the Senate Agriculture Committee in DC, also hosted by Senator Stabenow.

The first of the two Farm Bill hearings held last month, was on March 7, with the theme of Healthy Food Initiatives, Local Production and Nutrition. This hearing included the least amount of invited speakers compared to the other three hearings on this topic.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack began the testimony and addressed the importance of supporting local farmers, especially with the increased interest of buying local food. However, despite Vilsack’s rhetorical support for local small farmers, there was nothing in his testimony to suggest that there would be financial assistance available or financial incentives that would make it possible for small farmers to compete in the market. When agri-business gets billions in subsidies, how can we expect small farmers to be able to make a living?

The invited guests who addressed the Senate Agriculture Committee was a mixed bag, consisting of a 1,00 acre farmer, a representative from WalMart, a CEO of a food bank, the Executive Director of the Food Trust and the head of the Eastern market in Detroit.

The farmer from Arizona talked about the CSA they have developed over the years, but spent more time talking about Food Hubs, this idea that we need centralized locations where food can be stored and distributed. Food Hubs are part of the growing trends with local food consumption and it is even the language that Dick DeVos used when describing the now in construction Urban Market in Grand Rapids. However, if this is what is meant by food hubs, then people should be very concerned about who will have access to these food hubs and who will really benefit from them.

The representative from the Food Trust not only talked about their groups work on trying to increase the access of fresh, healthy food for everyone who lives in the Philadelphia area, he talked about how they hosted meetings for people – hunger advocates, farmers, environmentalists and health workers – to discuss and design what they would want the 2012 Farm Bill to look like. The Food Trust representative also talked about their farm to school program.

The representative from WalMart talked about everything from the company’s sustainability policies to anti-obesity initiative, but the bulk of their time was spent talking about their local food program. It is no secret that WalMart has been trying to cash in on the growing interest in local food buying. The retail giant has come under serious scrutiny, but has even convinced the White House that they can be a solution to urban “food deserts.” One food justice advocate’s response to WalMart’s claim of being a solution to food deserts was, “Walmart is using the term ‘food desert’ as a Trojan horse to get into our communities and bring about more corporate control of our food system.”

The other Farm Bill hearing that took place in March was on the 15th with the theme of Risk Management and Commodities. This hearing included more invited speakers, but the list of those invited was dominated by the agri-business sector.

Those who addressed the Senate Agriculture Committee were the American Soybean Association, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the Western Peanut Growers Association, the National Cotton Council, Farmers Mutual Insurance Company and the American Farm Bureau.

There were representatives from the National Farmers Union and Future Farmers of America, but their voices were small compared to the agri-business sector, which dominated the fourth Farm Bill Hearing.

There were also two farmers who addressed the committee. One farmer from Kansas, ran a 7,000 acre farm and the other farmer was from Bangor, MI. However, the farmer from Michigan didn’t speak much about their blueberry farmer. Instead, this farmer was at the Farm Bill hearing to speak on behalf of MBG Marketing, also known as the Blueberry people. MBG Marketing represents 300 blueberry farmers from several states, but its headquarters is in Michigan.

Like the previous Farm Bill hearings, these two hearings did little to challenge the power of the agri-business sector or the future of the national food system. However, considering who was invited to the table, it makes complete sense that the food system would remain under the influence of the agri-business sector, despite a growing grassroots call for a more democratic food system.

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