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This Little Piggy Has Questions About the Farmer's Market

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

How threatened is Agribiz by the baby steps the Department of Agriculture has taken recently in support of organic and local agriculture? Threatened enough that one big grower personally castigated USDA Undersecretary Katherine Merrigan last month at the department's Outlook Conference. Here's the account that ran in the Des Moines Register:

Tim Burrack, an Arlington, Iowa, corn and soybean grower and chairman of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, stood up at the end of a session this afternoon on locally grown foods and said,  “This is not the USDA that I’ve known.” The lead speaker at the session was Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who has directed the department’s shift in emphasis toward local and organic foods.

Brownfield Ag News' Ken Anderson later caught up with Burrack and asked him to elaborate. He quotes Burrack here:

“I’ve farmed for 37 years and worked with the government and everything — and what I’m hearing out here is radically different than what has taken place in the first 36 years of my career,” Burrack says. “And I just got up and told them so  — I said, ‘this is not the USDA that people in the Midwest are familiar with’.”

Burrack directed his comments to Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who is leading the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program.

“And she said, ‘Well, you know, the USDA is a big place and there’s room in the tent for everybody.'  So I guess that’s the attitude that we all need to work under,” says Burrack. “The concern is that traditional production agriculture has provided for this nation a very safe and very low-cost food supply.  And a lot of the emphasis you’re hearing here today is — well, you know, it won’t be cheap food like what we’ve been familiar with.  It’s a higher cost source of food — but they say we’re going to do it all.”

Big Agriculture's swipe at organic and local farmers about the high cost of organic product is a standard line. It's true that a pesticide-free bell pepper costs more than a fast food cheeseburger or two liters of cola.  It's also true that organic farmers receive no government support to grow the fruits and vegetables critical for a healthy diet, while Big Ag feasts on billions of dollars in taxpayer support every year to produce the raw materials for a food system that is putting a whole generation at-risk of obesity and diabetes.

Much of this money --  $7.8 billion in 2009 alone -- goes to ensuring profits for the largest growers of corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soybeans. When Tim Burrack talks about a USDA that people in the Midwest aren't familiar with, what he's really talking about is how unfamiliar corn growers like himself are with the notion of having to produce their crops without lavish government handouts. Going it alone is a reality that organic producers and fruit and vegetable growers are all too familiar with.

Here are a couple of interesting numbers:

  • From 1995 to 2009, Burrack Farm Inc. received $1,176,597 in taxpayer-funded farm subsidies.
  • During the same period, Tim Burrack personally collected $392,550 in subsidies.

Nice work if you can get it -- and Big Ag does. Links to the 07-09 data are not yet available online but will be this spring. EWG's Farm Subsidy Database has the details of Burrack's personal payments for 1995-06 as well as Burrack Farm's.

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