USDA: maybe we’ll let you grow vegetables after all

Back in December, I wrote about how silly it was that the USDA considers fruits and vegetables “specialty crops” rather than a basic aspect of the food system. That notion is so ingrained, the USDA even forbid commodity growers from planting and selling vegetables in acreages enrolled in subsidy programs, even if the vegetables were part of a crop rotation that would benefit the soil. Under Vilsack, that’s changing slightly. According to a recent USDA press release, a few select farmers in seven Midwestern states (not Missouri) will be allowed to grow certain types of vegetables without losing their subsidies:

Authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, the Planting Transferability Pilot Project (PTPP) allows producers to plant approved fruits or vegetables for processing on a farm’s base acres – these include cucumbers, green peas, lima beans, pumpkin, snap beans, sweet corn or tomatoes. Without the PTPP, planting these crops on base acres would be prohibited. Base acres on a farm will be temporarily reduced each year on an acre-for-acre basis, for each base acre planted with an approved fruit or vegetable on that farm. The approved states and acreages are:

Illinois (9,000), Indiana (9,000), Iowa (1,000), Michigan (9,000) Minnesota (34,000) Ohio (4,000), and Wisconsin (9,000)

Eligible participants must agree to produce one of the approved crops for processing and to provide the county FSA office with a copy of the contract between the producer and processing plant. Participants must agree to produce the crop as part of a program of crop rotation on the farm to achieve agronomic, pest and disease management benefits, and to provide disposition evidence of the crop.

I don’t know whether to celebrate or sneer. On one hand, this really is a step in the right direction, testing the viability of larger-scale vegetable production in the Midwest (which has always been viable from a practical and agricultural perspective; just not economically since we started funnelling money to California irrigation projects). I hope this program succeeds wildly and opens the door to more freedoms farmers ought to have anyway.

On the other hand, just look at what this tiny little program isn’t changing. Other than these few acres, the USDA bans vegetable production on commodity land. How much more evidence do we need of how fundamentally silly Federal control over farming is? A few generations ago, Missouri farms routinely raised over 10 types of field crops in addition to fruits, vegetables, livestock and more. It was just what people did. Now we’re supposed to get all excited because President Change’s new agriculture secretary is implementing a tiny little test program to “encourage local foods”, while every other rule and subsidy program continue to put the economic and political boot on market growers and independent farms?

Finally, did you catch that little note at the end? “Participants must agree to produce the crop as part of a program of crop rotation on the farm to achieve agronomic, pest and disease management benefits” So the USDA finally acknowledges that diversified plantings and crop rotation (beyond corn to beans to corn) have a wide range of actual benefits, including pest and disease control that doesn’t rely on agrichemicals? We’ll be growing 150 varieties of produce this year as part of our “program of crop rotation on the farm to achieve agronomic, pest and disease management benefits”. Can we have some candy, too, Uncle Vilsack?

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