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The Barnstormer

FARM TEAM CAPTAIN John Hansen is a voice for independent farmers on Capitol Hill.
Our agricultural policy used to be designed with farmers in mind. Then Big Ag took it over. Can it be won back?

Roughly every five years, Congress passes a new version of the farm bill. Many people already know that the bill provides income support for farmers; fewer are aware of the large role it plays in land conservation efforts, agricultural research, food-safety issues, and food-assistance programs.

The latest iteration of the bill expires on September 30, setting the stage for substantial legislative action on our nation's agricultural policy. With powerful lobbies and members of Congress saying that it's time to "rethink" agricultural subsidies, this year's bill promises to be especially contentious. And since budgetary austerity has become the new normal, competing interests will now be fighting for pieces of a smaller pie.

John Hansen has been involved with every farm bill since 1972. He tended the same 1,500 acres of northeastern Nebraska land that has been in his family for six generations until he was elected president of the Nebraska Farmers Union 23 years ago. As an advocate for his state's farmers, he helped establish guidelines for Nebraska's system of natural resources management and also helped organize local opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. The science-policy journalist Paul Tullis caught up with him at the National Farmers Union's annual convention, held in March in Omaha, to learn what family farmers hope will be coming out of Capitol Hill later this year.

What are farmers telling you are the biggest challenges they face today?

In the past they've struggled with chronically low grain prices. Lately, there have been a lot of farms lost because of a lack of affordable, accessible health insurance. And there's less competition and more market concentration, which affects the traditional family farm-and-ranch operation that used to balance out between either higher grain prices or higher livestock prices. A lot of those folks have gone out of business. Agriculture is energy-intensive, so volatility in the energy sector directly impacts costs. Other businesses can pass the costs of production on, but when we have higher expenses, there's no going to the sale barn and saying, "Based on my insurance or my energy costs, you're just going to have to bid higher for these calves." That's not the way the system works.

The first farm bill, which was part of the New Deal, introduced price supports to help family farmers. How did we get from there to where we are today, with many seeing the farm bill as a mechanism by which Congress writes giant checks to agribusiness?

The original farm program provided a floor for commodity prices. This worked very well for farmers, and with a minimum cost to taxpayers we had a stable, sustainable system. After World War II, though, commodities traders worked to destabilize the farm program, to turn production loose and let prices loose, so that grain farmers would be forced to do business from a more vulnerable position. Now we're moving away from a traditional system of independent family-farm owner-operators to a raw-materials procurement system. The same architects of that shift are driving our agricultural policy, and they use their financial resources very effectively to support candidates who see things their way. It's hard to lose a horse race if you own all of the horses.

What would the Farmers Union like to see changed in the upcoming farm bill to make the system more fair to family farmers?

Prior to 1996, farm bills were able to use a variety of tools to protect farmers from extremely low prices and wild market swings. These protections were slowly chipped away at over the years, and finally, in '96, bankers and commodities traders, thanks to their friends in Congress, got rid of that structure. So now we have subsidies that pay farmers to make up the difference between their costs and what the market pays them. We're hoping that the new bill will once again provide a floor for commodity prices so farmers will get a fair price for what they produce. It would be simpler than what we have now, and it would provide the same level of protection for half of what we're spending. It's so commonsensical and so rational that it's obviously an uphill climb in Congress.

What does the bill do to encourage farmers to help the environment?

The farm bill provides cost-share assistance for producers to install conservation provisions on their land, such as diverting pesticide runoff from rivers and streams. It also gives farmers an incentive to retire marginally productive acres that are very erosive, which ends up providing additional habitat for wildlife.

Part of the challenge is to fashion a national policy flexible enough to meet different natural resource challenges. In Nebraska, for example, we've got some of the richest, most productive farmland in the world in the Platte Valley. And the relationship between the Platte River and pump irrigation is very different than it is on the western end of the state, where we have a semi-arid desert plateau. Then there's the fact that we have a substantial wind erosion problem in the hills of eastern Nebraska. Not to mention all the wetlands we have. So just in one state there's a lot of issues. It's not ever simple.

How did the last farm bill include renewable energy in its programs?

One way it did was by continuing to encourage the development of fuel stocks for cellulosic ethanol. We're still about three years away from the practical commercial implementation of cellulosic ethanol. That's been my position for the last 15 years, and I'm sure as hell not changing it now! [Laughs.] We helped create a cost-sharing mechanism for farmers who want to convert to renewables like wind. We've also helped smaller farms convert from diesel to electric generation.

A large portion of total farm bill funding goes to food assistance programs. Since less-expensive food is often less healthy, what can be done to help needy families receive a better product?

Most folks don't understand that almost three-fourths of the funds go to food stamps and school lunches. The percentage of kids who are getting their primary meal for the day at school is alarming -- and yes, that meal needs to be better than the one they're currently getting. There's extra produce out there that could be used in the schools, but the Department of Agriculture has been taking it off the market in certain situations. Unfortunately, we've bureaucratized the process; common sense has fled the scene. Something's wrong when your own local school can't buy locally sourced products because the USDA won't allow it.

Finally, what choices can urban and suburban dwellers make to help America's farmers?

If you ask consumers whom they want to get their food from, they consistently say family farmers. Yet the farm policy we have is to a large extent controlled by special interests. When you look at the amount of money agribusiness spends in the political process, it's sobering. Still, we're encouraged that consumers who want to know where their food comes from support things like country-of-origin labeling; that they're buying more locally sourced products through family farmers and farmers' markets; and that they're just making more-informed buying decisions generally. That's a very positive partnership -- and one that some Big Ag groups feel very threatened by, by the way.

We want to make sure the food we produce is safe and nutritious. And we welcome the opportunity to get to know our customers. It's usually a beneficial arrangement when we can shorten the distance between food producers and food consumers.

image of Paul Tullis
Paul Tullis, a Californian, has written for more than 50 print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Businessweek, The Los Angeles Times, Wired, Fast Company, Sierra, Bon Appetit, Time, Salon, McSweeneys and McSweeneys.net, and NPR's "Morni... READ MORE >