One hurricane, an election and a new year later, I am still trying to figure out the answer to my own question. Here is part one of my quest to answer the question: If food were the only topic I cared to base my vote on, who would I choose? Read the full questioning post here.
The problem with this question is its inherent vastness. There are few issues that do not, in some way, make their way back to the food supply or onto family farms. And the ones with the most direct links are fraught with conundrum. Is blanket support for agriculture good for food as a whole in an age where corn and soy dominate and genetically modified organisms are ubiquitous? Are more stringent food safety regulations a good thing when they represent an unfunded mandate and therefore a considerable burden on small producers? After hours of listening and reading, I’m not promising any answers. But I now have a lot more questions.
The Farmer vote – a finicky barometer at best
Though it’s just one farmer’s account, Matt Russell, owner of Coyote Run Farm in Lacona County, Iowa, says that voting based on what’s best for both his small, and his parents’ large agricultural operation is what brought him to vote for President Obama twice.
“If you are like us, you haven’t been in love with every single food and agriculture decision from this administration, but the good stuff will all go away if Obama loses this election and historically speaking there’s a bunch of good stuff,” wrote Russell and his partner Patrick Standley in an email to customers before Obama’s reelection – as reported by AgWeek.
“When we started our farm in 2005, our county Farm Service Agency office wasn’t interested in our fruit and vegetable production,” said Russell. “For the last three years, we have had tremendous support from our county office for our farming enterprises.”
Despite Obama’s support for the farm bill and the Republicans’ implication in suppressing it, the Democrats did not bring it forward in the campaign, even in states where it would play.
University of Iowa professor and Iowa political expert Steffen Schmidt (not to be confused with Msnbc’s Steve Schmidt) told Harvest Public Media* that silence on major farming issues may be in the numbers – that there simply are not enough farmers anymore to warrant direct campaigning.
The farmer vote is also pretty unpredictable as farmers are a diverse group and don’t always vote on professional issues as a pre-election New York Times piece elaborated.
And now that the election and inauguration are in the past, the farm bill is still a prisoner of other legislation – with the old deal extended for nine more months in conjunction with the January 1 fiscal cliff deal. So the farm bill, which provides not just subsidies, but also conservation programs and stabilizing measures for dairy farmers, will never succeed or die on its own merit. This dynamic is not just to the detriment of heartland farmers, but also of their own doing as laid out by Tom Laskawy’s January 11 article for Grist.org.
The disunity of farmers when it comes to national elections, and the disability of the farm bill to come to the fore of debate both seem to support the original consensus void hypothesis – one that food writer and sustainable food patriarch Michael Pollan articulated in Andrea Seabrook’s wonderful new podcast Decode DC.
In Seabrook’s “Voter Guide” podcast, Pollan said,
“What happens in America is when the two political parties agree on anything, politics vanishes. It’s very hard to have a political debate when the Republicans and the Democrats are on the same side.”
Apart from watching the preferences of interested parties, one of the only direct addresses to food policy in the entire campaign was a question and answer administered by United Fresh, a produce industry trade organization.
In this Q&A, published in it’s likely quote-approved entirety here, Obama stayed very safe, but touted his marked achievements:
“I am also expanding regional food markets and have bolstered the number of farmers markets by 53 percent since 2008. Under my leadership, agriculture has been one of the fastest-growing parts of our economy, creating one out of every 12 American jobs.” – Obama
This statement is supported by a recent move by the USDA to offer a new scheme of loans targeting small farmers dedicated to selling there wares locally – a good idea to be sure. But no proactivity in the realm of artisanal and heirloom can make up for inaction and stalemate on the ordinary.
Stay tuned for Part 2.