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Bad farm policy contributes to disasters

Good farm policy works for rural people by stabilizing prices, encouraging the growth of rural communities, and helping farm families deal with natural disasters. This last point is particularly relevant now, as fires rage in the West, drought grips much of the South, and tornadoes, hurricanes and floods destroy communities around the country.

Yet instead of creating sensible farm policy that could lessen the effects of climate change and keep farmers on the land, our government promotes environmentally and economically disastrous overproduction.

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In 2017, the dairy giant Land O’Lakes reported record profits and the Brazilian-based JBS, the world’s largest producer and exporter of meat, saw its profits surge by 128 percent. Meanwhile, farmers are paid a fraction of the value of what they produce, while bearing all the risk, including the brunt of extreme weather.

And instead of encouraging farmers to take land out of production and finance environmentally sustainable practices, politicians effectively cut $6 billion in conservation funding from the 2014 farm bill. The 2018 farm bill will make even deeper cuts and end the Conservation Stewardship Program, which helps farmers start or improve responsible land, soil and resource management practices.

The United States is experiencing one of the worst farm crises in generations. Low prices are forcing grain, dairy, and livestock producers into debt and foreclosure, while Donald Trump’s trade war with China, Mexico and Canada is depressing prices even more. Production costs including feed, labor and machinery, are far in excess of sales revenues, as extreme weather adds even more volatility to an occupation plagued by uncertainty.

There is a single factor that drives the environmental, economic, and cultural crisis of rural America — overproduction.

Since the 1970s, farmers were told to “get big or get out” and “plant fence row to fence row.” Emphasizing production rather than stewardship has exacerbated the effects we experience following extreme weather. One example: A small region in Wisconsin was hit with 16 tornados on August 28, and flooding destroyed roads, homes and farmland throughout the state.

One contributing factor is that fence-row-to-fence-row farming of crops leads to erosion, as heavy machinery compacts the soil and agrochemicals reduce soil biodiversity and water-holding capacity.

Farm policy must remedy, instead of contribute, to the environmental problems that climate change aggravates. Establishing a price floor and ceiling for all commodity farm products would help small producers keep farming by stabilizing prices. This would also promote conservation, by removing incentives for surplus production while also promoting diversified cropping systems.

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Current farm policy sacrifices stewardship on the altar of profitability. Controlling price and supply would return power to farmers and rural communities. Unfortunately, the Washington, D.C., power structure cares little for the environment or working families.

Anthony Pahnke, an assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University in San Francisco, is vice president of the Family Farm Defenders; Jim Goodman is an organic dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.