Foresight on Food Politics

Foresight on Food Politics: The Governor Stands Firm on Anti-Agriculture Animal Rightists

Governor stands firm in opposition to HSUS

Despite taking some criticism from the group's supporters, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman continued his theme of opposing the Washington, D.C., based animal rights group Humane Society of the United States during a forum held in North Platte in September.

"We will kick their butt out of Nebraska," he told the group. "We don't want them in Nebraska. They don't represent our values."

Heineman earlier was challenged by the group and its spokesmen in Nebraska. They claimed his language is divisive, harming family farms, and that the group is simply working to improve the practices of farmers in order to ensure humane treatment of farm animals. But the governor is not swayed.

"[HSUS is] anti-agriculture," Heineman said. "You don't need someone from Washington, D.C., coming to Nebraska to tell you how to raise your animals."

Heineman carefully laid out his rationale for opposing the group in this interview last winter with University of Nebraska's Market Line program:

Focus on Food Politics: Are Rich Farmers Really Milking Government Crop Insurance? One Nebraskan's Perspective

Are farmers unfairly banking insurance bucks?

As Congress continues to debate a new Farm Bill, some critics point to the $7 billion annual pricetag of federal crop insurance, designed to help protect farmers from devastating losses such as those from this summers drought, as evidence "big agriculture" is being unfairly underwritten by federal taxes.

"Why do taxpayers subsidize farmers' insurance?" National Public Radio pondered last month. On average, farmers make more than the average citizen, other weather-vulnerable business like ski resorts don't get such treatment, and crop shortages caused by this summers drought and last year's floods actually raise the market price of commodities, improving farmers' bottom lines, NPR noted. (In fact, USDA predicts farm profits this year will reach a record $122.2 billion.)

" a year such as this one," opined the Lincoln Journal Star, "when the price of corn is soaring to record levels, even farmers who find cobs with only a few kernels on their shriveled stalks still can expect to get a sizable check from their insurance company.

"The Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons is among the organizations calling for scaling back crop insurance," the Journal Star continued. "The deluge of taxpayer dollars flowing to farmers in this drought could and should boost support for the center’s position."

Not so fast, says president of The Auburn Agency Crop Insurance Co., Ruth Gerdes. It is "absurd," she said in a response letter to the editor, to imply that " times of drought and disaster, farmers simply sit back and collect big crop insurance checks for doing nothing."

"Nothing could be further from the truth. Most farmers purchase crop insurance -- which protected 84 percent of eligible farmland in 2011 -- but only farmers who suffer a verifiable loss collect a crop insurance indemnity. In many years, most farmers purchase crop insurance and never collect an indemnity."

Gerdes, who entered the crop insurance business three decades ago after she and her husband nearly lost their own farmground to natural disaster and market depression, argues today's crop insurance program has enjoyed great growth because it is a sound business decision for both farmers and the public who underwrites it.

"It is real and bankable protection that is tailored by the farmer with their agent to the specific needs of the producer’s operation," Gerdes told a Congressional committee during public testimony in May. "No other farm program is like this. It is well managed – producers sign a business contract, and when disaster strikes an adjuster will be present and claims are paid timely. It is defendable in that farmers pay significant premiums – have skin in the game – for this coverage. Most farmers purchase crop insurance...but only farmers who suffer a verifiable loss collect a crop insurance indemnity."

Even when they do collect, Gerdes notes, the indemnity is benchmarked against the actual historical production of that farmer on that farm. In that way, the production history rewards farmers for doing everything possible to salvage a crop before writing it off to insurance.

"From the time the modern public/private partnership was forged in 1980, the program has grown from an insignificant nuisance among farm programs covering less than 12 percent of the nation’s cropland and generally attracting not the best of farmers; to a robust program covering 83 percent of all cropland acres and providing bankable protection to America’s best, most dynamic and most productive farm families," she says.

Because farmers, a fundamental element of sociey, she believes, do indeed face greater risks than any other business, they need access to affordable risk management tools. For this reason, the premium assistance provided to the farmer is absolutely critical--even the conservative American Enterprise Institute has argued crop insurance simply would not be viable without federal backing and cost sharing. In return for investing in that private-public cost sharing, the public receives the good which the original drafters of the program envisioned: less need for often more expensive ad hoc disaster programs.

"Despite record losses in 2011, which will increase in 2012, there has not been a single call from farmers for a federal farm bailout package," she noted. "It was always the establish a system that would be so comprehensive and robust in its coverage that it would eliminate the need for ad hoc disaster assistance. Well considering that we just came off a year in 2011 that contained the worst heat and drought in the history of the Southwest United States, and epic flooding along the fertile plains of the Missouri River, and not a single call was heard for additional disaster assistance, I would say [Congress] has achieved a grand success in crop insurance."

Forsesight on Food Politics: The Subtle Shift in the Meaning of 'Community Grocer'

What's it really mean when critics long for

A growing segment of food-system critics argues that for-profit supermarkets simply can't be trusted with something as important as feeding their communities 

As the federal Farm Bill finally surfaced to pass the Senate last week, it was meeting the expected flood of criticism from critics of the modern food system who believe it too heavily favors "big agriculture" and an industrialized food system. For example, an open letter signed by a long list of food-system critics, including nearby Ames, Iowa's, Women, Food and Agriculture Network, the Boulder, Colo., based Food Family Farming Foundation, and Chicago's, criticized the federal government and the farm bill for failing to support small, local farming and food distribution.

"Although the committee proposal includes important reforms to the commodity title, we are deeply concerned that it would continue to give away subsidies worth tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to the largest commodity crop growers, insurance companies, and agribusinesses," the advocates wrote, "even as it drastically underfunds programs to promote the health and food security of all Americans, invest in beginning and disadvantaged farmers, revitalize local food economies and protect natural resources. "

This latest round of criticism of the modern food system demonstrates again that although it sounds noble on the surface, the  “community supported agriculture” movement is a highly politicized movement which, in many cases, doesn’t recognize a valid role for the supermarket. Two examples demonstrate how the political movement is hijacking your identity as "community grocer."

'Supermarkets have taken the potential for a decent living away'

Repeating again the contentions that our "oil-dependent food chain" puts the world at risk of imminent starvation, Brithish chef turned eco-warrior Arthur Potts Dawson told CNN News that supermarkets can't be trusted with supplying our food, lest they become tyrannical armies in the event of food shortages. "...our very lives could be in the hands of the small group of men standing in a corner in Buckingham Palace," he warned.

"...big supermarkets dominate our food chain," Potts said. "...supermarkets are some of the best in the world at controlling, manipulating and delivering cheap food."

Make no mistake, he says. The for-profit grocer's talent for efficiently distributing food in order to make it affordable is not a good thing. It's simply oppressive economies of extraction that ultimately leave the consumer at the mercy of capitalism's whims. "Controlling food and its distribution takes a huge amount of money and energy, but because the British food producer could not keep up with the supermarkets' demands for ever-lower prices, the supermarkets have moved to buying globally," he said. "They turned to the products provided by cheap labor in northern and southern Africa, South America and Asia. But in shifting from Britain to the world, our supermarkets managed to destabilize Britain's food infrastructure."

Potts warns of dire, even bloody, consequence in that imagined destabilization: "It feels to me as if we are becoming so overly reliant on our supermarket system, that when it breaks down, all we can turn to is military intervention."

And lest you write Dawson off as a crackpot, take note that he has established the People's Supermarket, a London food cooperative grocery which, in exchange for their $54 annual membership fee permits shoppers to share in window cleaning, shelf stocking and checkout duties, in exchange for purchasing sustainable groceries. "Potts Dawson hopes that once his baby takes off," the London Telegraph glowingly reviewed the effort in May, "the likes of Tesco and Asda will be as a bad dream. We will all put in our community service and revel in 1970s-style food bills, while the big boys founder."

Meanwhile, Potts Dawson counsels local food advocates to keep a close eye on the potentially harmful community for-profit grocery store. "Be mindful of what supermarkets are doing and demand to see their business practices," he advised CNN.

'We must shift from being passive consumers'

Community food security advocate and author Mark Winne, who also signed the open letter to Congress, believes inner city supermarkets created so-called "food deserts" where poor people can no longer easily access healthy food because they purposely abandoned inner cities, often out of racist motives.

Winne's new Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin' Mamas extends that sentiment into proposed action, arguing through anecdote and example that if communities are to be food secure, they must control their food supplies independent of the for-profit grocery store.

Among others, Winne highlights the (not coincidentally named) People's Grocery in Oakland, Calif. Bringing food provision back to that blighted inner city, he argues, "...would necessitate some kind of hybrid business model, one that crosses a well-managed and profitable supermarket with some form of community and worker ownership; not necessarily a majority share, mind you, but enough to begin to rebuild the wealth of West Oakland. 'There's an imperative for greater economic control,'" Winne quotes People's Grocery manager, "'whereby people shift from being passive consumers to becoming active stakeholders.'"

But don't mistake Winne's call for consumer activity as a rhetorical call for market-driven competition. He has openly advocated for local food policy groups to engage in local political action. He believes such change at city hall is the last and critical step that must be made when market forces and local voluntarism fail to reach critical mass to effect change. He has bluntly praised local ordinances, for instance, that force vendors to serve low income areas, even if at a loss, in order to qualify to participate in more affluent neighborhoods.

"The argument we must make is for action, not contemplation;" Winne concludes,  "we must engage the food system. ....voices in the city council chambers will be the way that we strengthen our muscles."

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Foresight on Food Politics: Nebraska Congressmen Demand Answers on EPA Flyovers

Congress demands some answers on EPA farm flyovers

Even as critics expressed concern the Obama Administration's Justice Department might permit local law enforcement to use unmanned drones to surveil U.S. citizens--leading one politically right commentator to predict it wouldn't be long before an "American hero" shoots one from the sky--Nebraska's congressmen and Senators penned a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency questioning that agency's use of photographic flyovers to monitor large cattle farms for pollution.

The letter, sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson by representatives Adrian Smith, Jeff Fortenberry and Lee Terry, and and Senators. Ben Nelson and Mike Johanns, listed 25 questions concerning the surveillance and it's legality. The delegation did not immediately demand an end to the practice, but does want to know more about whay EPA is undertaking it.

"As you might imagine, this practice has resulted in privacy concerns amon our constituents and raises several questions," Smith said in a release. "These operations are in many cases near homes and landowners deserve legitimate justification given the sensitivity of the information gathered by the flyovers. Nebraskans are rightfully skeptical of an agency which continues to unilaterally insert itself into the affairs of rural America."

Apparently, EPA's aerial surveillance aimed at enforcing compliance with the Clean Water Act in livestock feedlots in both Nebraska and Iowa has been ongoing for more than two years. The Nebraska Beef Producers discovered the program when a member was confronted by EPA with photos of his farm. In addition to being an intrusion on privacy, since most farm family homes are inseparable from the farm when it comes to surveillance, they flyovers are both unnecessary duplication of current efforts and a waste of scarce taxpayer resources.

"Beef producers recognize the need for reasonable government regulation and are committed to do doing what is right," said Kristen Hassebrook, Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs for Nebraska Cattlemen. "They work closely with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to make sure their on-farm practices are directly tied to water, air and soil quality benefits. NDEQ has its own full time inspectors who are knowledgeable and conduct on-site inspections of livestock operations multiple times a year. EPA inspectors have all the tools they need to monitor operations without fly overs. Livestock producers are currently obligated by law to allow inspectors on to their property at any time, without notice. Access to a producer’s file is available to them and they can always speak with the state based regulators. It is only through on-site inspections that questions can be asked of a producer and a full understanding of how the beef operation is working can occur"

"These fly overs are a waste of taxpayer resources," she said. "In 2011 and 2012, fly-overs in Nebraska have found very few potential issues. In most cases, what was assumed from the air is not actually what is taking place on the ground, or NDEQ was already aware of the issue and working with producers to solve it.  The same ends could be accomplished by picking up a phone, sending an email, or talking to a producer in person. There is no need to spy on citizens."

Foresight on Food Politics: A Different Perspective on Farm Subsidies

As Congress seeks to control the ballooning federal deficit, farm supports have come under increasingly vocal scrutiny. For example, the New York Times argued in a 2011 editorial "Here's an Easy One," that federal farm subsidies waste "$10 to $30 billion" each year giving away corporate welfare to a few giant corporate farms. The Times editorial repeated many of the over-simplified arguments against farm subsidies, including one particularly glaring one: That the approximately $5 billion the federal government this year will devote to helping hold a floor under key commodity prices somehow "distorts" the $2.8 trillion food system, that subsidies somehow tempt farmers to grow the same crops year after year in the same fields--to the detriment of the soil, and that most of the money goes to "mainly large-scale farmers" who plant according to the government's subsidies rather than what the market tells them.

Of course, it's not that simple.

We farmers recognize we must take our share of the cuts if the threat of a growing federal deficit is going to be contained. And farm subsidies are not universally favored in the heart of farm country. Many in agriculture, given the choice between farm subsidies and a free and level playing field unconstrained by overzealous regulation would happily choose the latter. However, we also believe it's critical that we make decisions based on fact, not conventional wisdom. In this case, the notion that large farmers make planting decisions based on farm subsidies has been repeated so often it's become cliche.

As the chart below shows, while it's true the largest dollar amount of farm subsidies go to the largest farms (as you would expect, since subsidies are typically tied directly to production, and production is tied directly to gross sales), looking at the microeconomic effects of subsidies on individual farms should correctly lead you to an entirely different conclusion.

Some facts about how farm supports are spread around

For 2007 (the most current statistics available) farms that received government payments and grossed less than $25,000 per year -- that is, the small, part-time darlings of the New Food Movement -- took in an average 75 percent of the value of the crops they raised in the form of government subsidies. For the smallest farms -- those grossing less than $1,000 yearly -- the percentage skyrockets to nearly 300 percent. In other words: The smallest farms that took payments from the federal government earned three times more in subsidies than the typical farmer in that size category earned in crop sales.

Compare that to farms grossing more than a million dollars annually. Farms taking government payments in that size group received two pennies in government aid for every dollar the average farm earned from crop sales. And in the largest, giant corporate farm category, that government largesse falls to less than half a percent of gross sales.

To argue professional family farms are directed to cropping decisions that distort the U.S. food system by government payments that, on a $40,000 annual salary would amount to roughly the cost of a week's worth of groceries, may be an easy answer, but it's the wrong one.


Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.

In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.

Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.