As the debate over the Farm Bill goes on and on, and on again, this short, smart op-ed in the New York Times will remind you why all the nonsense matters. It isn’t by Michael Pollan. It’s by—gasp!—a farmer, specifically, Jack Hedin of Featherstone, a CSA farm in southeastern Minnesota. Hedin, whom Samuel Fromartz wrote about in his book Organic, Inc., needed more acreage to meet local demand. So he rented 25 acres from neighboring corn farms and planted fruits and vegetables on them. Turns out, fruits and vegetables aren’t an acceptable crop to grow, according to the USDA: The commodity program restricts farmers who grow commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice) from planting fruits and vegetables.
I’ve discovered that typically, a farmer who grows the forbidden fruits and vegetables on corn acreage not only has to give up his subsidy for the year on that acreage, he is also penalized the market value of the illicit crop, and runs the risk that those acres will be permanently ineligible for any subsidies in the future. (The penalties apply only to fruits and vegetables — if the farmer decides to grow another commodity crop, or even nothing at all, there’s no problem.)
Hedin owed his landlords a fee of $8,771. And why? “Because national fruit and vegetable growers based in California, Florida and Texas fear competition from regional producers like myself. Through their control of Congressional delegations from those states, they have been able to virtually monopolize the country’s fresh produce markets.” And the no-fruits-or-vegetables penalty is unlikely to be changed in this year’s Farm Bill, Hedin writes.
It’s attracted a lot of attention in the loca-sphere; it prompted the blog Crunchy Chicken to draw up a letter to Congress on the issue. Even Michael Ruhlman chimes in, calling the situation “appalling” and “a reminder that the name Dept of Agriculture is fast becoming an oxymoron.”