Sukkot and the Farm Bill

New York

September 28th 2012 / 12th Tishrei 5773

Dear All,

Sukkot starts on Sunday. It’s one of my favorite holidays: Sitting in a succah; the lulav and etrog; celebrating the harvest; feeling exposed to the world – in good ways; thinking about relationship to place – both locally, and in relation to Israel. Celebrating the change of season.

Liz and I are going to Isabella Freedman for Sukkahfest this Sunday – Freedman being the perfect place to spend Sukkot, as the New England leaves start to change color; and Sukkot being the perfect time to be at Isabella Freedman, especially since this year the succah, which is huge and beautiful, has a solid foundation, and thus won’t slide into the mud if it rains, which the weather forecast says is statistically unlikely. (Sukkahfest is almost sold-out, but to get one of the last reservations, or to join a list for cancellations, check Isabella Freedman’s website.)

This year, Sukkot will also coincide with the legal expiry of the current Farm Bill. What a long strange trip it’s been: a multi-year journey to a vital and complex piece of legislation, that’s not now going to proceed. I’ll say more in a moment about what I think will happen. But, first, in terms of the background:

  1. the Senate Agriculture Committee, and then the full Senate, voted for a proposed piece of legislation that was quite good in various respects. A prescient article in Mother Jones on June 22nd said that it could have been worse – and that the House version would be worse.
  2. The House version in due course was indeed a lot worse, including more than $12 billion in additional cuts in food stamps, but it only went through the House Ag Committee; it didn’t go through the full House, nor then get reconciled; and now Congress is on recess, which is why the 2008 bill will now expire;
  3. An article in the New York Times on September 12th contains a more radical critique of the Farm Bill, and one that I think is valid: The Farm Bill Should Help the Planet, Not Just Crops
  4. the Senate version – though not the House version – included $100m to support DoubleUpFoodBucks, which we argued for strongly. I hope that this provision makes it through into the 2013 versions. Similarly, there’s a trenchant piece by Jonathan Zasloff just up on the Jew & the Carrot, specifically about the foreign aid provisions of the Farm Bill. As a proportion of the overall farm bill, these provisions are relatively tiny, but their impact is significant. This is one of the areas where the Jewish community may be able to make a difference: If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention

So what happens now? Nothing will happen till a new Congress takes office, after the elections. Probably at some point this winter an extension of key provisions of the last Farm Bill will be approved, for a limited time. That will then shuffle consideration of a full-scale new Farm Bill into 2013.

For now, therefore, I’d say: watch this space. Don’t be deterred by a sense of disempowerment. Certainly – of course – you should vote in this fall’s congressional and presidential elections (and the smaller elections as well – the new West Wing Reunion video, encouraging you to vote, is superb). And certainly you should carry on learning about the Farm Bill, and about how we could develop more sustainable food systems in this country. There’s news and links – including a live twitter feed – at  The Jewish Farm Bill Working Group, of which we are founding members, will regroup after the chagim to figure out if/how we can seek to make a more sustained impact. (This year we made a reasonable start).

The single most valuable thing you can do is to learn about the issues, and get directly in touch with your elected officials. A comprehensive Farm Bill should be supporting and strengthening sustainable food systems, providing support for people in need, and reducing the amount of taxpayer money that goes to industrial monoculture – either directly, via subsidies, or indirectly, via mispriced crop insurance.

Sukkot comes to celebrate the harvest, to remind us of our vulnerability, and to inaugurate – we hope – a period of rains that will enable next year’s crop to grow healthily. Kein yehi ratzon – may this be a year of health and sustainability for us all.

Shabbat shalom, chag sameach,

Nigel Savage

Executive Director, Hazon