Religious leaders urge more justice, fairness in farm bill

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Leaders from several Christian denominations gathered July 17 in a House hearing room to urge that there be more justice and fairness in the upcoming farm bill.

“Abuses in the farm bill have become so egregious that it’s become a religious issue,” said the Rev. David Beckmann, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America minister who is head of Bread for the World, a Christian citizens’ lobby on hunger issues.

“People are talking about it in the churches,” he said at a press conference in the hearing room.

Bread for the World is one of the organizations participating in the Religious Working Group on the Farm Bill.

Rev. Beckmann said he did not like what he saw in the draft of the measure, which he said continues the long-standing practice of paying the biggest subsidies to the largest grain and cotton farmers, and pays little attention to conservation practices.

“The moral measure of U.S. farm policy is its ability to lift up those living in poverty, those struggling to make ends meet and earn a decent living,” said Oblate Father Andrew Small, a policy adviser for the U.S. bishops who focuses on international economic development.

The bill is a reauthorization measure that affects everything from agriculture policy to food safety to crop subsidies to nutrition programs, which include food stamps.

The effort by the Religious Working Group includes orchestrating more than 700 lobby visits to legislators’ Washington and home-state offices, generating more than 85,000 letters and 8,000 phone calls to Congress, and mobilizing “Faith Farm” teams in 38 states to write letters to editors and to contact their members of Congress by telephone and postcard.

The group also will place an advertisement in a Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, when the bill comes to the House floor.

A draft of the farm bill was unveiled in early July, and July 17 marked the first day of House Agriculture Committee hearings on it.

“The farm bill is filled with abuses and ought to be fixed,” Rev. Beckmann said, acknowledging the effort to push for changes is “a David-Goliath situation.” He added that fruit and vegetable growers — whose produce accounts for about half of all farm receipts but who see no commodity payments — are trying to change the commodity payment system, so an overhaul “has some chance of winning.”

The Rev. Earl D. Trent, director of missions for the Progressive National Baptist convention, echoed the biblical struggle on farm policy.

Having just returned from Haiti, he said he saw a rice field lay fallow while a “teeming marketplace” across the street was selling U.S.-made rice for less than what it costs Haitian farmers to grow it. African-American farmers have taken a hit, too, he said, dwindling from 250,000 caring for 15 million acres in 1910 to 18,000 tilling 2 million acres today.

“It was David against Goliath,” Rev. Trent said. “But David won.”

Other religious leaders at the press conference included Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service and director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby, and Episcopal Bishop John Bryson Chane of Washington.

The farm bill will go through the House first, then the Senate. In the Senate, more changes could result.

In a July 11 conference call with rural activists, Richard Bender, legislative assistant to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, outlined components of a rural development amendment he said Harkin will introduce when the bill reaches the Senate.

The package, estimated to cost $400 million over the expected six-year life of the next farm bill, would include money for rural America to get broadband service, give grants that would allow farmers to process their crops into “value-added” products (say, turning tomatoes into salsa), improve hospital facilities, establish funds for venture capital and “microloan” programs, and fund the construction of day-care and assisted-living facilities.

“Agriculture has seen 15 fairly flat years of funding,” Bender said. “It’s become a very tight circumstance.”

“We’ve heard plenty lately from the wheat growers, the corn growers, the sugar beet growers, the rice growers and all the other growers,” he added. “But they’re not hearing anything at all from the people they represent, the folks who are not growing something.”

“It’s really going to be on this mentality of dumping money in commodity production,” said National Catholic Rural Life Conference policy adviser Robert Gronski in a July 11 telephone interview with CNS on the upcoming deliberations in the House. “That really doesn’t help in terms of rural development. There have been studies that show those subsidies have harmed rural development.”

“Where you see the larger, heavier amount of payments you see farm income decrease and rural enterprise decreasing,” which leads to an “outmigration of people — and not a sustainable community,” Gronski added.

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