The Protest in Madison, Wisconsin

March 13, 2011

I took the boys to the protest in Madison.  This is the 26th day.  There was a “Farmer Labor Tractorcade” in the morning.

At first the boys didn’t understand what was happening, but they liked the excitement.  Children pay attention when adults are excited about something.  I did my best to explain the complicated issues to the boys without simplifying too much.

The way Governor Walker is ramming his agenda down our throats is probably what riles the people of Wisconsin the most.  He has always claimed it’s about the budget, but when he couldn’t get the 14 Democrat senators who fled the state to return to make a quorum, the bill to eliminate collective bargaining was stripped from the budget bill, and passed in two hours.

The last few years has seen the rise of the Tea Party, which is considered Right Wing.  This movement would be considered Left Wing.  They are approaching the problems from different angles,  but it boils down to Americans concerned about their future and the future of their country.

I’m so glad to live in a country that allows peaceful protests.  My favorite chant of the day says it best:

“Tell us what democracy looks like.  This is what democracy looks like!”

Michael Pollan Speaks in Madison Wisconsin

October 11, 2009

“What is all the fuss about?  Why are farmers protesting?”  I thought as I sat and listened to Michael Pollan speak at the Dane County Farmer’s Market.   After reviewing my notes I started to understand why he upsets some farmers.

Michael Pollan is an excellent writer and speaker who can convincingly make a case for probably anything he feels strongly about.  I thank him for caring about food and for pointing out a flawed system.  I won’t be signing a petition to appoint him Ag Secretary though.  Because, as even he admitted, policy is not his area of expertise, and I fear the wheels would come off if he were allowed to drive.

I feel strongly about this because I see parallels between the American farm and food system and my own.  My farm is transitioning from commodity-based livestock production to direct-market livestock production with minimal purchased inputs.  We are not relying on an off-farm salary while we make this transition, so changes are made cautiously and evaluated every step of the way.  Whatever the flaws of the American farmer and food system, we do feed a lot of people.  And that is worth something.

I’m intrigued by organic production, but fear I don’t have the time or patience to learn.  I would love to help a young couple start an organic CSA on part of my farm.  Then my curiosity would be filled as I reported on what they did.  And they would have access to land to realize their dream to farm and feed people. 


But enough about me, let me tell you what Michael Pollan had to say.

There is a movement rising to change the American food system.  Nearly 8,000 people turned out for his speech on the UW campus.  And there was evidence of pushback as protesters also were in attendance.

Mr. Pollan said the goal of the American food system should be: “To provide fresh, high-quality food to everyone in USA and a decent return to American farmers and contribute to the solution of environmental problems.”

Hard to argue with that.  But then he connects the dots between the environmental crisis on one side and the health crisis on the other.  Guess what he place in the middle as causative:  Agriculture.

Mr. Pollan said modern industrial agriculture drinks oil and spews greenhouse gas.  He said agriculture used to use one calorie of fossil fuel to produce two calories of food.  Modern agriculture uses ten calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food.  He said it takes 28 ounces of oil to produce one double quarter pounder at McDonald’s.  I don’t know if that was with cheese.

I have seen figures like this before and I question them.  I will be writing a post this winter detailing how much oil my farm uses and how much food we produce because I’ve been curious about this.

Mr. Pollan then says that energy comes from the sun and Photosynthesis is the only free lunch.  He would like to wean the food system off of fossil fuels and put it back on sunshine.  Food can be resolarized.

The health care crisis is code for ‘cost of industrial food production.’  Since 1960, spending on health care has risen from 5% of GDP to 18% of GDP as the amount spent on food has decreased from 18% to 9.5% of discretionary income.  I don’t buy into this simplified argument.

Mr. Pollan says we still need to support farmers.  We just need to change the subsidies to reward quality and diversity and environmental solutions instead of rewarding for quantity. 

I agree that government programs become ‘monsters’ that seek to sustain themselves rather than accomplish whatever it was designed to accomplish in the first place.  I think we need results-based government programs.

Mr. Pollan spoke about our food culture.  “We need to reregionalize food.  People need to learn to eat from a shorter food chain.  He says the USDA is starting to get this and used the example of the new, ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ program.

“We need to teach our children how to eat lunch.  This is a controversial statement until you consider that we are teaching them how to eat lunch by giving them chicken nuggets and tater tots and ten minutes.”

Michelle Obama was applauded for her organic garden and for speaking out about the importance of growing and cooking real food.  Claire Strader introduced Mr. Pollan, which was fitting because she is a Wisconsin grower that has become the White House gardener.

Mr. Pollan doesn’t feel there is a lack of farmland.  But there is a lack of farmers.  We have been demeaning farmers for the last 100 years and that has resulted in a brain drain on the farm.  That is something we both agree on.  It is going to take major brainpower to continue to feed people in a sustainable way.

Health Savings Account

August 27, 2009

J9 recently commented and ask that I explain my healthcare.  Thank you for this suggestion.  This topic is timely as the country debates health reform. 

So I’m writing this on a rainy Thursday morning, trying to decide whether to eat eggs or hamburgers for breakfast.  Yes, my diet is still meat heavy.  I’m conducting a lifelong test on the question, “Does saturated fat clog arteries?”

I have a Health Savings Account combined with High Deductible Health Insurance through Golden Rule Insurance.  My insurance premiums and the money I contribute to the savings account are tax-deductible. 

Congress created this program in 2003.  I jumped on it quickly because I already had high-deductible health insurance.  It’s a burden to pay the premiums and to contribute to the savings account, but it’s nice to have money I can use for medical expenses.  And any money I don’t use for medical expenses can be used tax-free for any purpose once I reach retirement age. 

So what does this look like in practice?  I have a $3000 deductible policy.  For this insurance I pay $2223 annually.  I contribute $2850 annually to my savings account.  So my total health cost for the year is $5073.

I am in favor of healthcare reform.  However, I reluctantly admit, I am not writing letters or attending listening  sessions.  I do little more than vote.  I am waiting to see what congress comes up with and will choose the best option for me.

2008 US Farm Bill

March 29, 2009

“The unintended consequences of a government program are usually greater than the intended consequences.”  Unknown origin.

Have you ever wondered what the US Farm Bill looks like to an individual farmer?  We signed up our farm for the 2009 growing season.  I wanted to get on my high-horse and opt-out; but my parents talked me into taking the “free” government money.  When I hear farmers griping about “welfare moms” taking government hand-outs I can usually change the conversation with a simple question.  “How much is your government payment?”

The 2008 Farm Bill is on the books.  It covers the 2009 through 2012 growing seasons.  According to the “Wisconsin Agriculturist”, the 2008 Farm Bill works out to $189 billion for domestic nutrition programs and $102 billion direct support for farmers.  The direct farmer support can be further broken down into $42 billion for commodity crops, $24 billion for conservation, $22 billion for crop insurance, and $14 billion for supplemental disaster assistance, trade, horticulture and livestock production, rural development, research, forestry, energy, and other programs.

With $10 billion in offsets from tax provisions the direct farmer support is reduced to $92 billion, or about $18.4 billion per year.  That works out to about $60 for every American.  What are you getting for your $60?

An excellent informational resource is 2008 Farm Bill Side-by-Side.

Eligible commodities are wheat, corn, grain sorghum, barley, oats, upland cotton, rice, peanuts, soybeans, other oilseeds, and pulse crops.  Payment rates are found in the previous link.

What entitles a farmer to receive a direct government payment?  Eligible producers share in the risk of producing a crop on base acres on a farm enrolled in DCP; annually report the use of the farm’s cropland acreage; comply with conservation and wetland protection requirements on all of their land; comply with planting flexibility requirements; use the base acres for agricultural or related activities; and protect all base acres from erosion, including providing sufficient cover as determined necessary by the county Farm Service Agency committee, and control weeds.

That all sounds great, except I know of no farmer that has had their farm checked for these provisions. 

Our direct government payment for 2009 is $3,552.  How is this determined?

The direct government payment is based on the historical production of a farm.  This is an average record of the various crops and acres planted to each crop.   The USDA refers to this as “base acres”. 

The base acres are then multiplied by 83.3% to get your payment acres.  This has been reduced from 85% in the previous farm bill.

Your payment acres are then multiplied by the historical county yield to calculate yield per acre in bushels.

Bushels are then multiplied by the payment rate to determine the direct annual payment in dollars.

Here is what our farm looks like:

Commodity Base Acres Payment Ac. Yield Pay rate Direct pay
Corn 130.6 108.8 112 $.28 $3412
Barley 10.7 8.9 55 $.24 $ 117
Oats 18.2 15.2 62 $.024 $  23

The strange thing about this is we don’t have to grow these crops to receive the payment.  All we have to do is own or rent the base acres.  Farmers look at the expected government payment when valuing land.  An unintended consequence of the US Farm Bill is raising the value of farmland. 

Another strange thing is the pay rate.  This seems to be based on the strength of commodity lobbyists.  Look at barley and oats.  On our farm these two crops are managed the same.  Their effect on the soil is virtually the same.  Why is their payment rate so different?  The only reason I can guess is that the barley lobby is more powerful than the oat lobby.

We have over 100 acres of hay.  Why isn’t there a payment for this commodity?

The strangest thing of all is we don’t know why we receive this money.  We are long-term stewards of the land.  We don’t do anything differently based on the government program.  All it costs us is a couple hours of paperwork.

The most recent statistic I saw was from 2002.  Only one third of farms received a government payment.  Most of the farms that received a government payment received substantially more than $3500.  If anyone knows of more recent statistics, please comment.