, ,

I returned a phone call yesterday to a friend of my father’s, a professor at Gettysburg College, civil war scholar and writer of more than a few historical texts. We were discussing my literary ambitions, and after some general conversation on the industry of the written word, he encouraged me much in the direction of past writing professors; write what you know.

He went on to suggest what I may question from my daily experiences with farming. In specific I remember him remarking that only about one percent of our country’s citizens are currently “farming”. He encouraged me to contemplate what this might mean that I was part of this one percent, and who else is this one percent.

To be sure, the US Department of Agriculture has seen some changes since it was formed some 150 years ago under then president Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe dubbed it, “the People’s Department,” and at the time farmers accounted for 50 percent of the country’s population.

That’s quite a shift for a country whose population has since increased from 34 million to over 314 million. More mouths. More meals. Fewer farmers.

Farming has become big business. The average farm has more than doubled in size since Lincoln’s tenure. The 15 acres I see everyday are barely noticeable against the backdrop of farms over 500 acres.

That there are fewer farmers, though, does not excuse the USDA from it’s assigned moniker. All of the people continue to have a basic need for agriculture. For sustenance, for clothing and increasingly for energy. It is still very much a people’s department.

However important agriculture continues to be in our country, it seems to be less and less of a priority in Washington.

Congress left for a six-week campaign recess last month before passing or renewing a farm bill.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), accounts for about 80 percent of the measure’s annual cost and will continue to be funded under the budget extension. Additionally, commodity payment programs (for mono crops like corn and soybeans) will continue normally the fall growing season.

This perhaps keeps the large farms happy, but the future of conservation programs and sustainable farming initiatives remain in question until Congress can pass a 2012 farm bill.

They could do this when they return on November 14, after the elections, but it could get shuffled between other outstanding legislation.

Last year, the house passed vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s budget plan, including $48 billion in cuts to farm programs. The Obama administration’s deficit reduction plan includes $33 billion in agricultural cuts over the next 10 years.

The budget given to agriculture is surely distributed inappropriately, but surely the country’s brightest minds can alter the plan without giant cuts.

Blessed by naivete, let me offer this. What about take the subsidies away from high-grossing farms and re-appropriate them to smaller farms in real need. Give the money to community programs that can use their innovations to educate low-income families on growing food for themselves and their community. Conserve, renew and convert abandoned and abused urban spaces so that the communities in need can provide for themselves.

Before long perhaps 80 percent of the farm bill won’t need to go to food stamp programs, because the people will be providing food for themselves.

Just a thought, from the one percent (of farmers).