"About 32,000 acres could supply Iowans with five servings a day of fruits and vegetables for three months out of the year, according to Iowa State University economists. Iowa farmers will harvest nearly 14 million acres of corn in 2007." That's the sidebar message in a Des Moines Register article brought to my attention by the invaluable FarmPolicy.com newsletter.
Iowa farmer Gary Boysen grows sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes, cantaloupes and other produce on 65 acres near Harlan. He sells his produce at nearby supermarkets and Wal-Mart. And he would like to be growing more fruit and vegetables for Iowans. However, a big obstacle is standing in his way: federal agricultural rules.
If farmers want to plant fruit and vegetable crops on land enrolled in USDA subsidy programs, they must permanently give up the possibility of receiving benefits. Not just for the period when they are growing non-program crops. Permanently.
Des Moines Register Washington correspondent Phillip Brasher writes
Farmers who grow federally subsidized crops such as field corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton can't convert land to fruit or vegetable production, even for only one year, unless they permanently give up their right to collect federal payments on that acreage.
Boysen was willing to do that on land that he owns. But to expand his fruit-and-vegetable acreage he needs to rent land, and that would mean persuading a landlord to take the acreage out of the federal farm program. That isn't likely to happen.
"You can't go on rented ground and expect the landlord to give up base acres," Boysen said, using the term for land enrolled in the federal farm program.
Farmland is entitled to annual fixed payments from the government, if the acreage was traditionally used to grow grain, soybeans or cotton. The payments vary according to the type of crop and the productivity of the land. In Iowa, the annual payment for corn acreage is about $30 an acre.
If the land is pulled out of the farm program to grow fruits and vegetables, which the government doesn't subsidize, those payments disappear forever.
This doesn't make sense to me. Why not let a farmer skip farm program payments for the years that alternative crops are grown on the land? Several members of Congress have made that suggestion, and the House-passed Food and Farm Bill will allow it to happen in Indiana (two new Democratic members of Congress from that state were allowed to insert that clause into the bill by House leadership to help win votes in the next election).
Produce industry forces from the big growing states of California, Florida, and elsewhere aren't happy with the Indiana experiment, and will be lobbying Congress to prevent the experiment starting or expanding. (Recall that the Senate has yet to consider the Food and Farm Bill, and the Indiana experiment could be stripped out by conference committee after the Senate passes its version of the bill.)
If this nation is going to rebuild local food networks, rules like the one described above need to be tossed out so that farmers in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, and other subsidy-receiving states can more easily grow what nearby people want to buy. Like great tasting, vine ripened tomatoes. Or melons that have matured and sweetened on the warm summer soil. Or strawberries with explosive flavor, instead of being pretty but tasteless imports from another state.