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Monthly Archives: April 2012

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

The cow is finally out of the barn. And it’s a little leaner than it was four years ago.

Last Friday, the Senate Agriculture Committee fired the opening legislative salvo in the effort to pass a 2012 Farm Bill when Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) released their bipartisan draft bill for consideration by the Committee.

Process-wise, the draft proposal is significant because it represents the official legislative starting point in the process, as well as the culmination of months of hearings and negotiations–both within the Committee and between legislators and agricultural interest groups.

Most of the initial news coverage about the bill will focus on its price tag, which amounts to an approximately $25 billion cut in overall Farm Bill spending over the next ten years (out of a total of $995 billion, for a cut of 2.5%). In addition to serving as a meaty target for the assault on spending, the proposal makes some noteworthy policy changes.

Since the minutiae of farm policy can have the same effect on one’s brain as a captive bolt pistol, it’s best to ease into things slowly. The vast majority of Farm Bill money is divided into four main areas: nutrition, commodity payments, crop insurance, and conservation, with nutrition taking the lion’s share (approximately three-quarters) of that funding.

Nutrition is obviously a centerpiece of the bill, and at the heart of the debate over cutting spending (Congressional Republicans–notably, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan–have targeted food stamps for massive cuts). However, it is the the other three major pieces–commodities, crop insurance, and conservation–that drive U.S. farm policy.

Of those pieces, commodities payments and crop insurance together comprise what is considered the “safety net” for American farmers. When you hear people arguing about whether our agricultural policies provide the right kinds of incentives for our food system, they are arguing about how this safety net is–and should be–woven together.

For the past decade and a half, the commodities title of the Farm Bill, which dictates the nature and levels of the subsidies that flow to farmers, has essentially been a three-legged stool consisting of direct payments (fixed annual payments based on historical yields irrespective of market conditions), “counter-cyclical” payments (payments based on historical yields triggered when crop prices fall), and marketing assistance loan payments (payments based on a farm’s actual production and triggered when crop prices fall below a price “floor”). Only a handful of staple crops are eligible for these payments, and over 90% of all payments go to five crops: wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton.

Due to its complexity and reliance on factors that have little to do with market conditions, this system has drawn its fair share of criticism. And the Senate Committee’s draft proposal contains what, in the insular world of DC-savvy agricultural types, amounts to a sea change: the elimination of direct and countercyclical payments, the very face of the “subsidies” that are so often decried.

In their place, the bill would create a new kind of insurance program to complement the existing crop insurance program, significantly shifting the safety net to a system based on risk management, rather than one based on chasing federal subsidy dollars. What remains to be seen is whether the proposed changes will have any significance outside the world of policy-makers–i.e., whether they will be perceived as a positive step for the future direction of our food system as a whole.

Ultimately, it comes down to expectations. If you’ve been hoping that negotiations between mostly self-interested politicians and entrenched interest groups operating under intense budgetary and political pressures would produce a complete overhaul of the farm subsidy system, you’re likely to be disappointed.

However, if you can take some measure of comfort in incremental reform, you have reason to be encouraged by the fact that those same politicians and interest groups have demonstrated a willingness to relax their leather-gloved death grip on a status quo that even they acknowledge had market-distorting effects.

As the Senate Committee begins the work of debating and modifying the draft bill in public mark-ups this week (the first session is being held today), supporters of sustainable agriculture should listen for how the new subsidy system is framed in the context of the effort to reform the food system, as well as how the draft bill addresses other sustainable priorities, including fruits and vegetables, organics, beginning farmers, and research.

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This is the first in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

Around these parts, a healthy mix of policy, politics, and punditry is as much a part of a balanced meal as protein, vegetables, and starch. I hope you’re hungry, because you’re about to get your fill of all three, wrapped up in a colossal–and colossally important–piece of federal legislation known as the Farm Bill.

As is the case every five years, the Farm Bill is up for reauthorization this year, with its latest iteration scheduled to expire in September. The bill is an extremely complicated mixture of programs, all of which impact the way Americans produce and consume food in varying and often inscrutable ways. Accordingly, the debate over the bill is riddled with misinformation and confusion, and serves to further cloud an already muddled issue.

This is the first in a series of posts that will attempt to synthesize the most important aspects of the debate over the 2012 Farm Bill and present them in a digestible way to people who care about promoting local, sustainable agriculture.

Unfortunately, the solutions to some of our food system’s most serious problems are not as simple as we would like them to be. Even if we knew definitively how to structure our federal farm policies to elevate local, sustainable practices, the debate over the Farm Bill can’t ever be completely separated from the federal budget framework in which it is just one piece, or from the powerful political forces that too often dictate the policy-making process.

And, since that backdrop will be responsible for how the Farm Bill process unfolds over the next several months, it’s as good a place as any to start. First, it’s important to understand that the Farm Bill doesn’t exist in a fiscal vacuum; it’s part of a broader federal budget picture in which every dollar is the target of fierce competition.

The same is true of programs within the Farm Bill. It’s a fixed pot of money over which a wide range of constituencies–including environmental interests, traditional commodities producers, and reform-minded supporters of organic, regional farming–are forced to scrape and claw. Add into this mix the recent Tea Party-fueled hysteria over federal spending–in a Presidential election year, no less–and an already difficult fiscal dynamic becomes nearly intractable. The sharp regional divisions characteristic of federal farm policy and a divided Congress promise to make things even more fun.

And while all of these factors suggest that passing a Farm Bill in 2012 is at best an uphill battle, for a variety of wonky budgetary reasons, there is likely to be far less money to go around in 2013, increasing the pressure to get something done this year.

Now imagine trying to have a rational debate over the future of farm policy in this environment.

As daunting as that may seem, it’s exactly what we’ll try to do in this space in the weeks and months to come. Finding room on our plates for all of these moving pieces will be a challenge, but it’s imperative if we’re to understand why and how important decisions are made, and how advocates of sustainable farming can best focus their advocacy efforts. So pull up a seat, and get ready to dig in.

Even seasoned mycologists will tell you that the traits of mushrooms are largely a mystery. For my sake, I can only hope that one of them is forgiveness.

When I worked as a line cook at Blue Duck Tavern, I was responsible for the daily harvest vegetable ($9)–or “farm veg” in the vernacular of the kitchen–a side dish featuring one or more of whatever vegetables were in season and happened to be in house that day. In theory, I was supposed to come up with the dish each day, but I consistently shirked that responsibility on the premise that I was a novice cook–a culinary school extern, in fact–and that it was therefore too much to ask me to conceive and prep a dish from scratch every day on top of the daunting task of managing my station’s more involved but less ephemeral dishes. (Of course, this meant that the chef–who had many more responsibilities than I did–had to come up with the farm veg. I feel slightly bad about my recalcitrance, but am prepared to live with it.)

Because a poorly planned or inadequately prepped farm veg could throw an otherwise calm day into chaos, we typically mapped out a tentative strategy a few days in advance, doing as much ahead of time as possible so as to ensure smooth sailing on the farm veg’s big day. For example, we might use a lull in service one night to trim brussels sprouts that would then be blanched the following day for use in the farm veg on the third night.

Shockingly, it did not always proceed according to plan. The restaurant was open seven days a week, and I worked five of them, which meant that someone had to cover my station on my days off. Frequently, I would spend all week getting ahead on the farm veg so that my understudy would have an easy go of it, only to return from my sabbatical to find that the farm veg pay-it-forward scheme I’d worked so diligently to engineer had collapsed in my absence. Other times, the chef would have an idea for an upcoming farm veg–one that in theory required relatively little prep work–but fail to actually order the required produce.

As a result, I came to despise the farm veg.

Nevertheless, I worked dutifully to stay ahead of the curve, so that I was consistently putting out a farm veg that met the restaurant’s reputation for tastiness without compromising the quality of my other dishes, while also maintaining my sanity.

On one fateful occasion, I arrived at work without a farm veg plan, and approached the chef to discuss the topic levelheadedly. Having become accustomed to my inability and/or unwillingness to do my own farm veg-related work, the chef took my entreaties in stride, and pronounced plainly that the day’s farm veg would feature roasted wild mushrooms over Anson Mill grits with a goat cheese fondu.

To set his plan into motion while simultaneously taking care of a bit of housekeeping, chef hurriedly asked me to follow him to the walk-in fridge, where I watched him root through a tower of mushroom boxes. As he stacked the boxes in my arms, he noted which I was to use for farm veg, which I was to discard, and which I was to relay to other cooks for one purpose or another. His instructions flew at me fast, but my brain registered them apace, and I exited the refrigerated repository with a clear sense of purpose.

I delivered a portion of the mushrooms to their intended destinations, and carried the remainder to my station, where I proceeded to clean, break up, slice, and otherwise fabricate them into a mushroom medley consisting of a rich and textured variety of bite-sized mushroom morsels, ready for roasting.

Along the way, I came across a rather unsightly batch of fungi in a damp, half-empty box. The mushrooms were rather large, with a passing resemblance to royal trumpet mushrooms with their thick stems and cream coloring. Half of them looked to be on the verge of rotting, and, since I had an ample supply of honey, hen-of-the-woods, and beech mushrooms on hand, I trimmed these misfits liberally, tossing the more questionable ones, and gouging any other parts that were remotely soggy or discolored. I treated the good bits as I had the other mushrooms–I cut them into bite-sized pieces, folded them into the mix, and pan-roasted the hell out of them.

Farm veg that night–as was the case every night an assortment of roasted wild mushrooms were involved–was a hit. When all was said and done, I had enough left over to fill a shallow six-pan–less than a quarter of what I’d started the night with–which I wrapped in plastic and tucked into the walk-in along with my other mise en place.

When I arrived at work the following day, I learned the harsh truth of the matter: those damp, homely mushrooms I’d treated so unmercifully hadn’t been royal trumpets at all. They were porcini mushrooms. Fresh ones. The kind that cost anywhere from $25-$50 per pound. The ones intended for use in a dish for that night’s high-priced chef’s table. And while chef was angry enough at the fact that they had been incorporated into the wild mushroom mix along with their inferior, far cheaper brethren, he didn’t–and still doesn’t–know the worst part: I threw more than half of them away.

I’d like to issue a public apology, first to my chef at Blue Duck, for not following his instructions, for compromising his meticulously planned chef’s table menu, and for unceremoniously dumping good money into the trash.

But, more importantly, I’d like to apologize to the species porcini: we don’t know each other well, but we’ve had some good times together (that week in Italy after my wedding was unforgettable), and I am more than fond of your meaty flavor and creamy texture. I know this doesn’t mean much, but I’d like to think that the pressures of cooking on the clock, where common sense often takes a back seat to haste and the mechanical completion of assigned tasks, was as responsible for the demise of your offspring as any personal failing of mine.

If you’ll still have me, I’d like to get reacquainted over a bowl of fresh pasta and a bottle of Gattinara.