One rapidly growing trend of the past few years is the increasing call for locally produced foods, which has been a wonderful boost to small farmers around the country. I don’t subscribe to a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program because I like to have some control over what foods I get each week, but I faithfully hit the local greenmarkets. I confess that I don’t know all that much about this country’s agricultural policies beyond the fact that the big crops like corn and soybeans are heavily subsidized by the government to keep global prices down and ensure overseas markets for our enormous surplus of these crops (thereby quashing small farms abroad). What I didn’t know until this morning was that it was a direct threat to the small, local farms. Today’s paper has an op-ed column from an organic vegetable farmer in the Midwest:

The commodity farm program effectively forbids farmers who usually grow corn or the other four federally subsidized commodity crops (soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton) from trying fruit and vegetables. Because my watermelons and tomatoes had been planted on “corn base” acres, the Farm Service said, my landlords were out of compliance with the commodity program.

I’ve discovered that typically, a farmer who grows the forbidden fruits and vegetables on corn acreage not only has to give up his subsidy for the year on that acreage, he is also penalized the market value of the illicit crop, and runs the risk that those acres will be permanently ineligible for any subsidies in the future. (The penalties apply only to fruits and vegetables — if the farmer decides to grow another commodity crop, or even nothing at all, there’s no problem.)

In my case, that meant I paid my landlords $8,771 — for one season alone! And this was in a year when the high price of grain meant that only one of the government’s three crop-support programs was in effect; the total bill might be much worse in the future.

You’d think, with the health/environmental/economic crises this country faces, that small businesses aimed at addressing all those issues would be encouraged, or at least left alone to thrive according to market demands (many farmers are lobbying simply to have the government remove subsidies for the veggie acres, but not fine them for growing more nutritious food). He goes further to point out that he’ll have to increase his prices to absorb the cost of the fines he incurred by growing more crops to meet local demand. Which then feeds back into the elitist “local foods are only for rich liberals” notion–because that’s the only group that can afford it with such restrictions in place.