By Donella Meadows
–June 7, 1990–
BOONE, IOWA, SEPTEMBER 15, 1995: In Dick Thompson’s farmyard, big red barn on one side, classic white farmhouse on the other, President Barbara Bush signed into law today the most revolutionary Farm Bill in U.S. history. “For sixty years this nation’s agricultural policy has been getting more expensive, more complex, and more unjust. At the same time American farming has become economically unstable and environmentally hazardous,” the President said. “Today we turn all those trends around.”
Hundreds of farmers, environmentalists, and politicians attended the signing, which coincided with the annual Thompson Farm Field Day. President Bush and other dignitaries toured the farm’s 360 acres on a wagon stacked with hay bales and pulled by a tractor. On the tractor Dick Thompson explained through a megaphone how he produces his tall-standing corn, weedless soybeans, and disease-free hogs and cattle, using no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics or hormones.
This farm, which has been managed organically for 30 years and is one of Boone County’s top producers, is a prime example of what the 1995 Family Farm and Sustainable Agriculture Act is intended to encourage.
“The new Farm Act finally reflects at the federal level the breakthrough that has been happening in the countryside over the past twenty years,” said Secretary of Agriculture Garth Youngberg. “One-third of our farmers have already discovered how to farm successfully while preserving soils and waters and avoiding hazardous pesticides and fertilizers. This Act helps the rest of the farmers to follow suit. It signals the arrival of the agriculture of the Twenty-First Century — high tech, high yield, but small scale and sustainable.”
The 1995 Farm Act sets forth strict growing and labeling requirements for produce that claims to be environmentally safe. It shifts research and extension funding toward organic agriculture — it raises the budget for LISA, the Low-Input Sustainable Agricultural research program from $10 million to $100 million per year.
Research funding is up, but this Farm Act as a whole will cost taxpayers much less than its predecessors. In its most controversial provision, it sweeps away the commodity subsidy programs that have been totalling $25 billion per year. “The commodity payments were going primarily to the large corporate farms, which don’t need them,” says Youngberg. “And by fixing acreage in particular crops, they stymied farmers’ flexibility to adopt new crops and crop rotations.”
“We think we’ve found more direct, fair, and efficient ways to reduce crop surpluses and to stabilize the income of the family farmer. The 1995 Farm Act controls total output through production quotas. And it supplements farm-family income directly — but only to owner-occupied farms with net incomes of less than $100,000, and only if those farms have adopted approved soil conservation measures.”
In an innovative program that links farm and cities, the new Farm Act also provides low-interest loans to urban composting programs. This program can reduce municipal waste, provide farmers with low-cost organic fertilizer, and cut the nation’s energy use and air and water pollution.
Farmers, environmentalists, and consumers are hailing the radical shift in farm policy, but it has not left everyone happy. “The 1995 Farm Bill is a disaster,” says Monsanto President Earle Harbison. “You can’t feed a world’s growing population by throwing on a little manure and swatting the bugs with a swatter.” Former Senator Jesse Helms, now President of the American Tobacco Institute, warns that the sudden removal of tobacco subsidies will bankrupt 40,000 tobacco growers nationwide. The Chemical Manufacturers Association estimates that reducing pesticides could decrease agricultural output by $6 billion a year in California alone.
On the other hand, some major companies are accommodating rather than resisting the shift in agricultural technology. Says E.S. Woodward Jr, chairman of Du Pont, “Corporations that think they can drag their heels indefinitely on genuine environmental issues should be advised: Society won’t tolerate it, and Du Pont and other companies with real sensitivity and environmental commitment will be there to supply your customers after you’re gone.”
Senator Wes Jackson of Kansas has no sympathy for the disappointed lobbyists. “These are the people who have caused the major problems of modern agriculture — soil loss, chemical dependence, fossil fuel wastage, loss of the family farm, and a poisoned environment. It’s about time farmers become free from the salesmen who define problems for farmers that farmers never knew they had — and then sell the remedies. Farmers are looking to nature for remedies now — and nature’s remedies are free, effective, elegant, and healthy for both nature and people.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990