One of the first and most fundamental changes that must occur when a new presidential administration takes charge in Washington is the reform of the Department of Agriculture.
The Cabinet-level agency with responsibility for farm and food policy has operated during the Bush years as a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate agribusiness. Invariably, when left to its own devices, the department has opted against the interests of working farmers.
Consider the deliberate misinterpretation of the 2008 farm bill, which was enacted by Congress earlier this year over a veto from President Bush.
Bush thought the bill was too generous to working farmers, even though the overwhelming majority of the money that is allocated goes to hunger programs and environmental initiatives.
Congress thought differently.
Congress was right.
Still -- as it has done with presidential signing statements in other cases -- the Bush administration is seeking to override Congress, and the rule of law, by having the Department of Agriculture interpret a smart provision in the farm bill in a manner that harms some of America's smallest and hardest-working farmers.
The farm bill provision in question denies support payments and other forms of federal aid to so-called "hobby farms" and to housing developments on former farmland.
This appropriate limitation, which was designed to end past abuses, says that properties of less than 10 "base acres" are not eligible for federal money that is available to larger farms.
But the Department of Agriculture is interpreting the limit in a manner that denies payments to small farmers who own or rent several small parcels of land. This sort of farming is very common in the upper Midwest, where family farms often rent parcels of land adjoining property they own or buy parcels on opposite sides of a country road.
In Wisconsin, there are 37,000 parcels of farmland with 10 or fewer base acres. All these parcels, and the thousands of Wisconsin farm families that work them, have the potential to be affected by the USDA's misinterpretation.
At the urging of the National Farmers Union and other groups that represent working farmers, the U.S. House voted last week to temporarily suspend the 10-acre provision.
At the same time, Wisconsin Sens. Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl joined 20 other senators -- Republicans and Democrats -- to demand that Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer interpret the farm bill as Congress intended.
The senators noted that, in its misinterpretation of the farm bill, the USDA has used draft language that was not even included in the final measure.
"The USDA is relying on language that wasn't even part of the final farm bill to deny small farms this important safety net," argues Feingold. "Congress' intent was clear -- farmers who have more than 10 acres of land, regardless of whether or not it is connected, should be entitled to these payments. This bipartisan effort is aimed at stopping the USDA from cheating small farmers out of critical assistance."
Feingold is spot on.
Farm and food policy in the United States can and should be constructed to help small, efficient farmers stay on the land -- in order to ensure that this country has diverse sources of quality, locally produced food products. There are also tremendous environmental benefits that come from having working farmers act as stewards for small parcels of land.
Corporate agribusiness, with its one-size-fits-all approach that seeks to develop sprawling factory farms, threatens food quality, competition and environmental protection. Family farming, often on small parcels, keeps the balance right.
By deliberately misinterpreting the farm bill, Bush's ag department is throwing the nation's farm and food system out of whack. That's bad for farmers, consumers and communities. That's why, in the short term, the department must stop deliberately misinterpreting the farm bill. And it's why, in the none-too-distant future, we need a new secretary of agriculture and a new approach at the USDA.