March 21, 2014

Most Mich. Farmers Skip Their Slice of Farm Bill Pie

Livestock Farmers Who Could Benefit Most Don’t Apply for Conservation Program $$
Less=More Coalition Launches Effort to Increase Applications


A coalition of farmers, advocacy groups, and consumers aims to increase access to Farm Bill funds for small-scale and environmentally friendly Michigan livestock farmers. The five-year federal legislation signed by President Obama Feb. 7 in East Lansing includes $8.9 billion nationwide for an agricultural conservation program underutilized by many of the Michigan farmers who could benefit most from it.


The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to support practices that address natural resource concerns and protect water, soil and wildlife. In fiscal year 2013, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Michigan allocated $17,889,245  in EQIP subsidies to 1,026 applications to support conservation practices by all types of Michigan farmers, with 60% going to benefit livestock operations.


According to the Michigan office of the NRCS, the agency doesn’t track the specific number of contracts awarded to livestock producers. However, if the total number of awarded applications for all types of farmers in the state is just over 1,000, then only a small fraction of Michigan’s more than 20,000 livestock operations are benefiting from this federal subsidy program.


“Even if every one of those 1,026 applications came from a livestock operation, that would represent only five percent of the livestock farms in the state,” said Sandy Nordmark of the Michigan Farmers Union. “We need to do a better job of helping more of these farmers take advantage of the federal support that’s out there for them.”


Less=More hopes to raise the application rate among Michigan’s sustainable livestock farmers, in particular. The group, a sustainable agriculture coalition of farmers, consumers and advocacy groups (see membership below), has created an online resource for farmers to easily access information about EQIP and the 2014 Farm Bill in one place at http://tinyurl.com/subsidyinfo2014.


Sustainable agriculture emphasizes stewardship of natural and human resources to produce safe, healthy food and doesn’t lead to the environmental concerns of industrial agriculture.  Less=More says that EQIP support for practices like brush management, grassed waterways, fencing and filter strips would enable sustainable livestock farmers to compete in a marketplace where large-scale intensive livestock operations have an unfair advantage.


The NRCS, an arm of the US Department of Agriculture that administers EQIP through the office of the Michigan State Conservationist, is mandated to distribute 60 percent of EQIP funds for livestock practices of all types. However, some of the biggest subsidies available are for practices designed to address problems associated with the huge amounts of waste generated by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), or factory farms. For example, in 2014 a CAFO can apply for and receive more than $103,000 to fund a mechanical system for a waste separation facility and nearly $93,000 for manure conveyance for a separator system. Anaerobic digesters fetch anywhere from roughly $300-$650 per animal unit, which translates to a substantial sum for operations with 1,000-2,500 animal units.


“Factory farms take a perfectly good natural material, animal manure, and concentrate it until it becomes an environmental issue and then get federal money to address the problem they’ve created,” said Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, a Less=More member. “Meanwhile, sustainable farmers who work with nature and have appropriate numbers of animals for the land have little need for funds to deal with waste, but they would benefit greatly from receiving more support for their sustainable practices.”


EQIP subsidies for waste-related practices don’t solve the underlying problems inherent in large-scale operations that warehouse thousands of animals, so many CAFOs end up polluting anyway. In 2013, Less=More issued a report, Restoring the Balance to Michigan’s Farming Landscape, demonstrating that many polluting factory farms continue to receive taxpayer money. The report found that 37 Michigan factory farms cited for environmental violations and unpermitted discharges over the 15 years ending in 2011 were awarded nearly $27 million in various Farm Bill subsidies between 1995 and 2011.  Of these operations, 26 jointly racked up fines and penalties of more than $1.3 million for their share of these violations.


Less=More members joined together in 2012 to address the inequity of Farm Bill subsidy distribution in Michigan and how the current system favors polluting factory farms over safe, sustainable livestock farms at the expense of the environment and public health. It is a coalition of organizations engaged in various aspects of our food system that seek to level the playing field for sustainable farmers by addressing the inequity of how taxpayer subsidies are distributed in Michigan.
Less=More includes: Beery Farms of Michigan, LLC, the Center for Food Safety, Crane Dance Farm, LLC, Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, Food & Water Watch, Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council, Groundswell Farm, The Humane Society of the United States, Michigan Farmers Union, Michigan Small Farm Council, Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition, Michigan Voices for Good Food Policy, Michigan Young Farmers Coalition, Sierra Club Michigan Chapter and Socially Responsible Agricultural Project. 


Restoring the Balance to Michigan’s Farming Landscape and other information about Less=More is available at www.MoreforMichigan.org.