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The new agriculture.

March 6, 2011

To leave the dreary politics of climate change for a minute, let’s take a look at the far more optimistic world of agricultural politics. The New York Times has an article this weekend about young farmers. It’s a movement I totally support, although I (unfortunately) don’t see myself making that career change, at least in the immediate future. In the meantime, I read the Greenhorns’ blog, imagine myself as a cheesemaker, and try to buy produce from local farmers as much as I can.

One of the reasons the young farmers’ movement is looking so much more promising than other environmental movements right now is that the federal government is actually providing  budget support in this field. As the NYT article points out:

the 2008 Farm Bill included a program for new farmers and ranchers. Last year, the department distributed $18 million to educate young growers across the country.

— which is not to say that that is necessarily the optimal support level. But it’s better than the situation in other environmental areas. Because so many of the USDA’s programs are considered mandatory spending, meaning that they are provided for in the Farm Bill as opposed to in annual appropriations acts, they are not as vulnerable to the budget-cutting massacre that the Republicans are currently trying to wreak on the EPA, Energy Department, and ARPA-E, among other important agencies and programs. Nevertheless, Congress is still going after Ag programs that are critical to promoting effective conservation practices. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a great, informative post about the current budget situation.

Of course, the last Farm Bill was far from perfect, and the next one, projected to move through Congress in 2012, will likely retain a lot of the same, historically-ingrained bad policy; Mark Bittman had a great piece last week about the continuing need for subsidy reform. I generally agree with Bittman’s recommendations – especially that “specialty” crops like fruits and vegetables need far more subsidy support than commodities like corn and soybeans. I also think he’s right about the idea that to properly reform the food system in a more sustainable model, we need more farms – which will necessarily be smaller – throughout the country.  But I’d also like to see subsidy reform that incentivizes conservation practices – not only those that protect water quality (which are already supported by various USDA programs) but also those that address climate change adaptation and even mitigation, as in the case of farming practices that sequester or reduce GHG emissions.

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