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Save family farms, not factory farms

(Sunday, March 23, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Journal-Advocate, 03/20/03, Margot McMillen, guest columnist, Missouri Rural Crisis Center:

Family farms all over the United States especially those grossing between $10,000 and $249,999 are under siege. However, the 7.27 percent of agriculture operations that gross more than $250,000 are doing fine, selling a whopping 72.1 percent of agricultural products. Increasingly, therefore, food at the supermarket comes from factory farms rather than family farms. And that means that, increasingly, grocery-store meat comes from Confined Animal Feeding Operations,or CAFOs.

Those large factory farms are the mega-polluters in the agriculture sector. Residents of some states that contain factory farms have become almost complacent about the headlines. Just last month, Cargill, the nations largest private corporation, was fined $286,778 for letting hog manure flow into Loutre River in Missouri.

Before the arrival of these giant polluters, beginning in the late 1980s, family farmers usually showed themselves to be good stewards, raising reasonable numbers of animals on their land.

Adding insult to environmental injury, family farmers have lost markets to these mega-polluters and, worse, find themselves actually paying to build the industrial behemoths through export incentives, federally-guaranteed loan programs and other tax-financed industrial bonuses.

Now Congress has altered a program that once helped family farmers so that more tax money can go into CAFO coffers. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was introduced in the 1996 farm bill to provide farmers with incentive and cost-sharing funds to protect the environment. Farmers could apply for money to terrace fields, which prevents run-off, or fence creeks off from grazing livestock.

The cap of $50,000 per farmer in the 1996 Farm Bill ensured that the money went to family farmers. To provide further guarantee, it was written into the 1996 bill that EQIP funds could not be used by CAFOs. But, in the fight over the 2002 farm bill, the lobbyists for industrial agriculture won a big battle CAFOs can now get $450,000 of public money over seven years. Thats your tax money and mine.

EQIP is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a USDA agency. This is not the time for NRCS to provide incentives for new or expanding CAFOs.

Family farm livestock production, on the other hand, has the potential to provide a sustainable economic and environmental future for rural communities, plus the possibility of rebuilding our local and regional food system. For this reason, targeting EQIP to family farmers can provide a long-term investment in the nations natural resource base.

Family farm organizations are issuing proposals to be addressed by NRCS that would ensure that:

  • EQIP funds should be prioritized to benefit independent family farm operations.
  • New or expanding CAFOs should not receive EQIP funding. (Minnesota has already adopted this policy.)
  • Livestock operations under production contracts with giant farms should not receive EQIP funding because the contracting factory farm dictates day-to-day management practices.

These policy proposals will help target scarce conservation dollars to independent family farm operations, which need them most and will realize the greatest benefits.

This would optimize the environmental benefits from EQIP by spreading the funding around, and thus help to achieve balance in EQIP contracts.