Why Does the Farm Bill Matter to Us?

— by Hannah Lee

Most Americans are protected from the travails and vagaries of our food sources.  The five-year cycle of Congressional debates on agricultural subsidies may underwhelm you, but it is relevant to your family’s well-being in hidden ways.  On Thursday, the Senate approved a new farm bill that would cost nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

More after the jump.
Sugar subsidies were left in place.  Crop insurance was reduced for the wealthiest farmers, those with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000.  This was through the efforts of Senators Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), saving $1 billion over 10 years. Recipients would now have to take steps to reduce erosion and protect wetlands, according to a last-minute amendment by Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia).  The bill eliminated about $5 billion a year in direct payments to farmers and farmland owners, whether or not they grew crops.

The limited good news is new funding for the next generation of farmers through an amendment by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).  The bill will also expand block grants to states for research and promotion of fruits and vegetables.  It will encourage the expansion of farmers’ markets.  It will consolidate several conservation programs to make them more efficient.

Despite the efforts of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), the biggest cuts were to the food stamp program, now known as the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

The House will begin discussion of the bill after the July 4th recess.  The House Republican budget presented by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) would reduce food stamp spending by about $134 billion over the next decade and turn the program into block grants for the states.

Among the 64 Senators approving the Farm Bill was our own Robert Casey (D), while among the 35 Senators rejecting the Farm Bill was Patrick Toomey (R).   Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) was the sole abstention.  

A New Old View of Tu B’shvat

From Johnny Appleseed, to the wise old man that Honi the circle-maker sees planting carob trees for his grandchildren in the classic midrash, those with the foresight to plant trees for the future are lauded in history and legend. Fruit trees are a special investment compared to annual crops. They require years of cultivation before their delicious rewards can be reaped.  Tu B’shvat originated to help farmers keep track of their trees’ ages, so that they would know when it was okay according to biblical law to eat the produce. Today, however, appreciating that first juicy bite of fruit after years of waiting lies beyond most of our experiences.

More after the jump.
Tu B’shvat has become a day to celebrate trees.  Jewish Arbor Day is a wonderful way of modernizing an agricultural holiday in a society mostly divorced from farming, but it does not get at that ancient and essential experience of reaping a reward after a long period of work, investment, and patience. As with most of our food, fruit is available to many of us at our convenience. But the environmental, health, and social costs of using chemical fertilizers to grow food on an industrial scale, burning fossil fuels to ship it far away, and sending the profits back to huge corporations instead of the farmers, are receiving increasing attention. So this year I plan to re-root my observance of Tu B’shvat in the beauty of delayed gratification.

In addition to pausing to appreciate the wonder of trees, I’m going to use Tu B’shvat to take more time and care to collect and prepare my food. Americans spend and average of 6.9% of their income on food compared to 12-14% in many EU countries (USDA) and 30 minutes per day cooking it (OECD). When we see cooking as a chore, it loses all of its magic. But when I put time and energy into conjuring a meal, I am astounded by how much better it tastes (not to mention how little it can cost).  So maybe we can expand the meaning of Tu B’Shvat and use this day to slow down and imagine the mixture of awe, delight, and gratitude that our ancestors might have felt when their teeth pierced the flesh of the first fig on their just mature tree, they peeled open the pod of that first carob, or they poured out oil from a new crop of olives. We can appreciate trees, and also the still mysterious processes — seed to fruit, flour to bread, raw ingredients to a beautiful meal — that are worth waiting for and give value to that patience.

I invite you to join me in my new Tu B’shvat tradition. You can come over for dinner if you live in Cambridge! Or you can use one these suggestions as a jumping off point for your own celebration of delayed gratification:

  •  Track down a local winter farmer’s market here and see what’s available that fits into your seder.  
  • Bring back an old family recipe from the brink of extinction.
  • Cook something that you’ve always wanted to try but never make because it involves starting the night before.
  • Choose a fruit you’ve never tried before, look up a recipe here, here, or (gasp) in a cookbook if you have one, and incorporate that into your seder.
  • Make something from scratch that you usually take a shortcut on.
  • Delegate parts of your meal to each member of your family, and spend the day cooking together before sitting down to what will likely be a longer, more drawn out meal as you enjoy each person’s contribution.
  • Go on a “food tour” of the table before you start eating. Let each contributor introduce their dish in whatever way is significant.
  • Brainstorm and enjoy things that get better with time — wine, cheese, slowly rising bread, sauerkraut, grandparents, old friendships — as part of your meal.
  • Plant a fruit tree! You’ll have to wait a few Tu B’shvats before you’ll be able to eat from it. But just imagine how delicious it will taste. If you have young kids, you can measure the tree’s yearly growth in comparison to your child’s and see when the tree surpasses your child’s height. Look here to see what grows well in your region.
  • This year I’m challenging myself to design a meal in which each of the fruit categories of the seder gets its own course.  We’ll see how it goes.

Erin Taylor is from Lower Merion, Pennsylvania and is a very recent graduate of Tufts University and the Adamah Fellowship (a Jewish sustainable agriculture fellowship). She currently lives, cooks, and gardens in Cambridge, Massachusetts and serves in Gloucester as a FoodCorps service member running a school garden.