By Ron de Yong, Director, Montana Department of Agriculture
Recently the U.S. House of Representatives passed Farm Bill legislation that removed the nutrition component that provides food for children, seniors, the disabled, and others in need. If your intention were to eliminate or drastically reduce food going to those in need due to economic distress, this is the legislation you would pass. If your intention were to eliminate or drastically reduce the safety net for family farmers in America, this is the legislation you would pass.
Nutrition has traditionally been part of the Farm Bill, not only to achieve the necessary votes in largely urban districts, but also because farm producers provide food for the nutrition component and receive over 15 percent of nutrition dollars in return. This is becoming even more significant as local food movements continue to grow across the country, and nutrition benefits made available through debit cards are accepted at farmers markets and farm vegetable stands.
The other major connection between nutrition and a farm safety net is the middle class. The nutrition portion helps to put our citizens in need on a stronger financial footing and improves their opportunity to move into the middle class. Almost half of recipients are children. Nutritional needs of children are met so that they can develop both physically and mentally and have the opportunity to become part of the middle class when they are grown.
The farm safety net has been significant in developing and maintaining a middle class across rural America since the Great Depression. Producers face extreme volatility in both weather and prices. Producers and the rural communities that depend on them can lose billions of dollars when revenue cycles down due to either disastrous weather or very low commodity prices.
Although its method and formula have varied, the safety net keeps producers and rural businesses that depend on them in business, and maintains a rural middle class during economic downturns for just pennies on the dollar compared to no safety net. In addition to maintaining a middle class in rural America, the safety net stabilizes a bountiful food supply for Americans at reasonable prices. This is the primary reason we in the United States are able to spend about 7 percent of our incomes on food, compared to 15 percent and higher in many other developed countries.
It says something about the current state of our political system when 532 agriculture-related organizations urged the House to follow the Senate’s lead and compromise on a farm bill that keeps food and agriculture together, yet 216 Republican lawmakers apparently decided there would be no consequence to ignoring that mandate and following ideology instead. The U.S. Senate, with a strong bipartisan vote, passed a Farm Bill that used common sense to address both nutrition for the needy and a safety net for family farmers, while reducing the federal budget. This is the legislation that should come out of conference committee and be voted on by the House and the Senate.
The economic power of our middle class has made the United States the envy of the world, yet there seems to be a concerted effort by some to weaken the economic condition of the middle class and widen the gap between rich and poor. Legislation that separates those who need food from those who produce food is the latest assault on people striving to remain in or join the middle class. We must choose a different course and do everything we can to strengthen the middle class.
Ron de Yong was appointed director of the Montana Department of Agriculture by Gov. Steve Bullock in January. He owns a family farm in the Kalispell area.