NEW YORK - August 31 - By placing most of the 2002 Farm Bills economic and conservation funding in the hands of immense industrial farms, Bush Administration farm policy is forging two rural Americas: one a fading sect of traditional family farmers with little funding and a diminishing supply of land, and the other a small but wealthy agribusiness elite driven by taxpayer-funded incentives.
What were seeing here and everywhere in this business is the corporate industrialization of agriculture by non-farmers, said Chris Petersen, of the GRACE Factory Farm Project and a multi-generational farmer himself. They say bigger is better
but for whom? Not for family farmers and certainly not for rural communities.
The 2002 agriculture census, the most recent farming data available, shows that small to medium sized traditional family farms are vanishing at an astonishing rate and being replaced by larger, mechanized facilities. Census data shows that the number of hog farms in the country has decreased by 37 percent in five years - over 45,000 farms abandoned. During that same period, the national inventory of hogs has only dropped by one percent.
On the Bush Administrations watch, mammoth industrial farms have collected an ever-greater share of federal farm subsidies. In 1995, they received $3.98 billion, or 55 percent of all federal farm payments. In 2002, their portion increased to $7.8 billion, or 65 percent of all federal payments. Currently, almost 30 percent of agricultural subsidies go to the top two percent of farms and over four-fifths to the top 30 percent.
Indeed, the 2002 census confirmed the consolidation of the U.S. farming sector around a smaller number of increasingly wealthy corporate players. The census found that the most profitable three percent of large farms earn 61 percent of all the money paid for agricultural products in the United States.
By shrinking the market for sustainable farming, consolidation is forcing traditional family farmers to foreclose or become contract growers for industrial agriculture, said Alice Slater, President of the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE).
One Bush Administration program, masquerading as environmental clean-up, actually is helping corporate agribusiness at the expense of traditional family farmers. Under the Bush Administrations Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), 60 percent of program funds must go to help livestock producers meet environmental regulations. Since generally only operations with 1,000 or more animals require regulation, the vast majority of funds are directed toward large industrial facilities.
In all the language in the EQIP program, they have taken farmer out and inserted producer, notes Petersen. The program ends up robbing the true stewards of the land to pay the biggest polluters.
Immense industrial livestock factories generate about 575 billion pounds of manure every year that is stored in open-air pits called lagoons and later spread on the surrounding cropland. Manure run-off contaminates local drinking water and produces excess amounts of nutrients in surface waters. The extra nutrients cause an overgrowth of algae that depletes water of vital oxygen and strangles fish.
Lagoons are also known to generate gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Exposure to these toxins can created severe respiratory problems including chronic bronchitis and asthma.
Farm policy under the Bush Administration has made industrial farms more competitive than they would otherwise be by forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for their clean up, notes Slater. By ignoring the principle of polluter pays, the Administration is subsidizing big agribusiness at the expense of traditional family farmers, she said.
President Bush has recently suggested expanding another program, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), that provides incentives for farmers to set aside some of their land indefinitely. But the program has the effect of squeezing traditional family farming out of rural communities by opening more land to non-agricultural activities. Indeed, studies by the American Farmland Trust have found that every minute of every day America loses two more acres of rural farmland.
Despite the rhetoric, traditional family farmers seem left out of the current vision for rural America, said Slater. Our future should be about preserving access to wholesome food by preserving access to wholesome food by protecting rural Americas farming heritage, not finding new ways to stamp it out.