Healthy Farms Act brings many benefits
By Tim Male and Franz Weber
The pineapple and sugar cane plantations of old Hawai'i have been replaced by a vibrant and growing industry of diversified agriculture, but U.S. agricultural policies are still stuck in the dust of the 1930s.
However, if Congress passes a farm bill this year that better meets Hawai'i's needs, our farms and ranches could do even more to meet local demand for healthy local food, renewable energy and an improved environment.
Every five years, Congress must pass a farm bill that authorizes spending on all agricultural issues — everything from food stamps, to cotton subsidies, to wildlife conservation. The farm bill is big; spending on crop subsidies alone has exceeded $20 billion in some years since Congress passed the last farm bill in 2002.
Hawai'i gets little of that money. While some Midwestern states get 15 cents of government assistance for every dollar of agricultural commodity they sell, Hawai'i farmers and ranchers get less than one cent per dollar. In 2005, only New Hampshire and Rhode Island farmers and ranchers got less money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hawai'i is not the only state that is losing out. In fact, farmers in only eight states altogether get more than 50 percent of farm bill spending, while farmers in the rest of the country must divide what's left. Even worse, 1 percent of America's farmers collect 80 percent of all the money USDA provides to farmers.
However, there is a chance that things will change this year when Congress passes a new farm bill. A perfect storm of opponents of the status quo — fruit and vegetable farmers, environmentalists, fiscal conservatives, free traders, religious groups — are finally working together for change.
The first major effort for change was launched last week on Capitol Hill. A bipartisan group of 77 lawmakers, including Rep. Mazie Hirono, introduced "The Healthy Farms, Foods, and Fuels Act in the House of Representatives. An identical bill has been introduced in the Senate.
The Healthy Farms, Foods, and Fuels Act focuses on the needs of states like Hawai'i, where a common agenda of conservation, renewable energy and diversified agriculture initiatives would be beneficial.
The measure doubles spending on farmland protection, wetland, grassland and forestland restoration, irrigation management, and a host of other environmental initiatives. It also expands programs that give Americans easier access to healthy foods — particularly those programs aimed at children. For example, it expands coupon programs so that low-income families can use food stamps at farmers markets, it provides assistance so more farmers can switch to organic farming, and it expands programs that provide free fruit and vegetable snacks to school children.
The Healthy Farms, Foods, and Fuels Act will also help America expand our renewable energy production. It increases grants and loan guarantees 10-fold for farmer-led efforts to produce solar and wind power and environmentally beneficial renewable fuels, and it encourages energy conservation on farms.
A host of other legislation and important votes will come over the next eight months in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. All of these are part of what may seem like an endless and bewildering variety of bipartisan struggles over the future of food, agriculture, nutrition and environment in America.
Whatever else happens, by the end of the year Congress will have passed a farm bill. Strong support for initiatives like The Healthy Farms, Foods, and Fuels Act will help ensure that America has agriculture policies that reflect the needs of all 50 states — including Hawai'i — and that provide consumers with home-grown fuel and nutritious food, produced in ways that help the environment.
Tim Male works on national farm policies for Environmental Defense, a national environmental group with more than 1,100 members in Hawai'i. Franz Weber is president of the board of the Hilo-based Hawai'i Organic Farmers Association. They wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.