Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Offering of Letters from a New Mexico Farmer's Point of View; Lobby Day Report

When medium and small family farms growing commodity crops receive payments, we look to see which tractor can be repaired or what seed or fertilizer bill will be paid. A large corporate farm is looking to see which medium-sized farm is going broke so they can buy or rent more land to increase the subsidy payment they receive, or buy new larger equipment to farm more acres.
Gene Watson, a farmer in southern New Mexico

When LaVerne Kaufman and members of her committee at Peace Lutheran Church in Las Cruces, N.M., asked local farmer Gene Watson to address the congregation the week before the Offering of Letters, he readily agreed. After all, Gene is a member of the congregation, and the topic of the Offering of Letters, the 2007 Farm Bill, is dear to his heart. Gene is a third generation New Mexico farmer, who with his brother grows crops on 425 acres of irrigated land.

During his presentation to members of the congregation, Gene spoke about how our system of farm subsidies--which go primarily to corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton-- is skewed toward the larger farmers. In many cases, these huge farms are owned by corporations, which have easy access to government payments. Often these huge corporate farmers exploit loopholes in the farm law to get funds beyond the legal limits. "If you are a corporation or conglomerate, the $360,000 max subsidy does not apply to you because you can hire a lawyer who finds a loophole to allow you to receive $360,000 for each commodity crop you grow," says Gene. "In other words, a corporation with sufficient land, some acquired from nearby farmers who went bankrput, could conceivably get as much as $1.8 million for growing the five crops."

Bread for the World's Offering of Letters, seeks to put a cap on these payments and close some of the loopholes. Some of the money would redirect some of the money to other crops, which in many cases are grown by small- and medium-sized farmers like Gene and his brother. "Eight years ago my brother and I decided to look for specialty crops to expand into. We were tired of growing lettuce, onions, cabbage and selling them for the harvesting cost, trucking cost and broker fees," said Gene. "In other words we received nothing for growing the crops, or very little in return. We had to hope for bad weather in other farming areas to make a profit, which isn't a very good Christian attitude."


A handful of Bread members from New Mexico took Gene's fight to Capitol Hill on June 12. We were particularly impressed by the willingness of several congressional aides to really listen to the concerns of farmers like Gene. Our visits turned ihto cordial conversations about the farm bill and US food and agriculture policies. In particular, I would like to single out Tim Charters, the legislative director in Rep. Steve Pearce's office, who happens to be Gene's congressional representative. We were also pleased with our visits with Dan Alpert at Sen. Jeff Bingaman's office, Zane Vaughn at Sen. Pete Domenici's office, and Jeannette Lyman at Rep. Tom Udall's office. (Unfortunately, we did not have a positive experience at Rep. Heather Wilson's office).

Will our visits make a difference? You bet they will. We ensured that the concerns of Bread for the World and other anti-hunger and anti-poverty organizations are part of the conversation as Congress debates the 2007 Farm Bill over the next several weeks. Not only did we reinforce the message about subsidies, but we also urged Congress to strengthen the food stamp program, support rural development, help small- and medium-sized US farmers, and promote conservation. By limiting subsidies, our country can also help poor people in developing countries. By not sending our surplus commodities (resulting from the overproduction due to subsidies), we'll ensure that agriculture markets in poor countries have the opportunity to thrive.

(Photos: The top image is a display of produce in front of the altar at the Interfaith Convocation, which was part of the National Gathering. The lower image shows four of our five members who went on visits to Congress on Lobby Day. They are (left to right) Ruth Hoffman, Vicky Scheidler, Emily Thorn and Ann Sims).

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