Farmers around the country are anxiously awaiting the passage of a new farm bill that would lock in federal policy for the next decade.
Farmers and rural communities can't afford another failure like the 1996 bill. That bill never delivered on its promise of higher commodity prices through new global markets and has left many producers in need of support payments to stay in business.
But instead of reforming the policies put in place by the disastrous 1996 legislation, the current farm bill is all about capturing the dollars allocated in the 2001 budget and then hurrying to spend the money before the United States Congress is forced to revise the budget downward in 2002.
Dollars first and policy second.
Agriculture plays a critical role in the vitality of rural communities through the maintenance of family farming, rural employment, and quality of life.
Among other benefits, agriculture can produce positive contributions to biological diversity, soil and water systems, renewable energy, landscape, food quality and food safety.
To realize the potential, we need a farm policy that enables producers to move away from the emphasis on low valued raw materials to one that also values and promotes the production of multiple benefits and public goods.
Consider U.S. energy policy, now dominated by oil producers. The U.S. spent more than $40 billion defending the nation's access to Middle East oil in the Gulf War and we're considering drilling in Alaska and the Great Lakes region for more.
Congress and the states can and should choose to reduce our dependence on oil by expanding public and private investment in diversified, sustainable energy production at home.
Investments in renewable sources such as ethanol, biodiesel, wind and biomass would enhance our energy security, reduce the economic power of oil cartels and global oligopolies as well as provide good jobs and economic development in our local communities.
The same is true of our food policy.
Our supermarkets are increasingly filled with imported foods from a handful of global processors, including such food staples as meat and dairy products.
Meanwhile, federal policies continue to push family farmers out of business while our fertile regions such as the Midwest are locked into intensive production of feed grains, much of which is exported as animal feed to Europe and Asia.
Emerging concerns about food safety and agro-terrorism are serious, given the recent consolidation of agribusiness into a handful of global processing and supply chains.
An increasingly unified, global food supply with vertically integrated distribution systems has proven difficult to watchdog. If contamination occurs, the whole system is potentially exposed.
Decentralizing our food production system would make it more efficient and less vulnerable to safety threats, create jobs and stimulate economic activity in our communities.
What is encouraging is that, despite the disastrous 1996 bill and the largely misguided approach of the current legislative proposals, many farmers and rural communities are taking the initiative to build a new way.
For example, in western Minnesota, farmers and the University of Minnesota are creating a local community food system.
In Wisconsin, the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (CROPP), one of the nation's largest organic co-ops, now serves more than 400 farmers from 15 states.
And in Iowa, the Practical Farmers of Iowa is building local food systems, connecting farmers and consumers in the community.
Federal policy has always been a step behind what is happening on the ground. It's time to catch up.
We need increased public and private support for smaller, diversified farms with local food production and a processing infrastructure to match. Not only would we have access to fresher, higher quality and safer food at home, but we would also have the added benefit of local jobs and greater economic security.