Blumenauer offers alternative to farm bill

PORTLAND — Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer isn’t on the House ag committee, but like many in the Portland district he represents, he’s keenly interested in food and farming and has some ideas about how it should be supported in the next farm bill.

Blumenauer, familiar in Congress for his bow ties and bicycle lapel pins, has spent the past two years asking what the farm bill would look like if it were written for Oregon. That is, providing budget and policy support for small and organic farms, local food systems, conservation programs, sustainable ag practices and for growing fruit and vegetables instead of providing subsidies for “cotton grown in the desert,” as he put it during an Aug. 1 appearance in Portland.

He believes the farm bill, up for reauthorization in 2018, gives “too much to the wrong people to grow the wrong food in the wrong places.” He said USDA spending for the type of agriculture practiced in Oregon, with 220 commodities and emerging regional food hubs, amounts to a “rounding error” in the department’s $140 billion annual budget.

Blumenauer wants to change that. He’s drafted the Food and Farm Act, essentially an alternative farm bill, and plans to introduce it this fall. He also released a report that summarizes his findings from two years of talking to farmers, ranchers, consumers and other stakeholders.

In a presentation at Zenger Farm in East Portland, Blumenauer said a farm bill revised to reflect Oregon’s style of agriculture would find favor in many other farming states, including California and Washington.

He said the broad range of USDA’s activities mean a revised farm bill would address problems across the country.

“The farm bill is the most important health bill,” he said. “It’s the most important environmental bill. It’s an opportunity to link rural and small town Oregon with population centers. It’s economic development. Anyone here eat? Drink water?

“The punchline is that nobody understands the farm bill,” Blumenauer continued. “The complexity, I think, in some cases is purposeful.”

Organics, conservation work, fruit and vegetable “specialty crops” and small farms have been funded piecemeal, thrown financial “crumbs” in previous farm bills, he said. “We want to have a comprehensive farm bill that we offer up to have a point of departure, to change the conversation.”

Blumenauer’s Portland audience included Alexis Taylor, the Oregon Department of Agriculture director, and representatives from groups such as Oregon Tilth, which certifies organic operations, the Oregon Food Bank, the Oregon Winegrowers Association and Grand Central Cafe and Burgerville, local chains that prominently feature regionally produced food on their menus.

While generally supportive of Blumenauer’s ideas on the farm bill, some in the audience questioned how the reforms will fare in an embattled Trump administration.

Blumenauer acknowledged the administration has “not displayed a lot of legislative dexterity” and said changes will have to be carried through Congress by a broad coalition.

“It’s hard with this administration to know where to start,” he said. Supporters should concentrate on “What we are for and why we are for it,” he said.

“We need to build a coalition, build the case, and not be distracted by the next Dumpster fire.”