Several years ago one of Kentucky’s greatest natural resources — poet, author, conservationist and farmer Wendell Berry — spoke to a gathering during the local “Festival of Faiths” held each November.
Berry, in his direct-but-calm, gentle-but-solid manner, was discussing the dwindling numbers of family farms throughout the nation. But more than that, he was lamenting what’s been lost in the transfer from local farms to “agri-business,” from seasonal fruits to year-’round apples and peaches and watermelons.
“Young people today have never experienced the taste of a carrot freshly pulled from the ground,” Berry noted. And he also bemoaned the lack of taste of today’s fruits, cantaloupes and melons, often grown in some man-made structure and harvested before they’re ready to be consumed.
But far beyond the aesthetics of farm products and food in general, this bard of the backwoods has been warning for decades that the nation’s system for producing food is out of whack, out of balance and certainly out of contact with nature — at least nature as we once knew her. Family farms have given way to agri-business — huge conglomerates that have kept full our supermarkets, those modern-day miracles with their always-present, but mostly tasteless food.
Years ago Berry wrote that the nation needs “a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.”
It’s a problem that hasn’t gone away.
Congress, which Mark Twain once referred to as that “grand old benevolent asylum for the helpless,” has announced plans to drastically cut the omnibus Farm Bill.
In fact, as the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act — the bill’s official name — has made its way through the U.S. House and Senate, little attention has been paid to the suggestions Wendell Berry has been making over the years. There are few, if any, provisions that would help save small, family farms. And some of the bill’s most important aspects — its ability to help provide food for some of the nation’s poorest people — faces drastic funding cuts.
For instance, the House has proposed a $16 billion cut to the nation’s Supplemental Nutritional and Assistance Program (SNAP) — the program once known simply as “food stamps.” Leaders of Catholic Relief Services and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference — and the Catholic Conference of Kentucky — are fighting to reverse that proposal.
The cuts “will hurt hungry children, poor families, vulnerable seniors and struggling workers,” said a letter from Catholic leaders to several members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The letter was signed by Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace; Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services; and James Ennis, executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.
The letter was critical of the House Agriculture Committee’s treatment of the $957 billion measure, which passed July 12 with a bipartisan vote of 35-11, but it wasn’t all negative. According to Catholic News Service, it praised the work of the House Agriculture Committee on the subjects of international food security and development, praising legislators for “wisely” allocating $400 million annually for the nation’s Food for Peace program that helps combat hunger in some of the world’s poorest nations. It also called the bill’s proposal to eliminate direct payments in farm subsidies a “positive step.”
But it lamented the continuing threat to conservation programs and to programs that help small farmers and rural development. “Government resources,” the letter said, “should help those who truly need assistance and support those who comply with environmentally sound and sustainable agriculture practices. Savings from reductions to agricultural subsidies should be used to support hunger and nutrition programs that feed poor and vulnerable people.”
The Catholic Conference of Kentucky agrees. In an electronic message sent to conference followers and members on July 3, Father Patrick Delahanty, the conference executive director, urged people to contact their representatives in government. We should support a farm bill, the conference said, that “feeds hungry people at home and abroad and supports essential domestic and international hunger and nutrition programs; promotes stewardship of creation; supports the growth of rural communities; and reduces subsidies except to small and medium-sized farmers who need them.”
Support for small farms — and locally-grown food — is not just good policy; it sounds a lot like common sense.