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Farm Bill: Why the Church Pays Attention

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Last year at this time, Congress was preparing to write a new Farm Bill. You may have heard that Congress is still preparing to do so! When the House of Representatives failed to move the Farm Bill along by the end of last year, House and Senate leaders chose to extend the Farm Bill until this September.

I’m happy to report that the Agriculture committees of both the Senate and the House have now marked-up their respective bills. The full Senate is expected to take up the bill immediately, and the House will reportedly do so by this summer. As people of faith, we need to weigh in and voice our concerns.

The U.S. Farm Bill – despite its very abbreviated title – is much more than farm programs. This comprehensive legislation establishes how our nation cares for hungry families (both domestically and internationally), supports growth in our rural communities, promotes renewable energy, encourages land, water and wildlife conservation, and yes, does assist farmers and ranchers.

The Church brings deeply rooted principles to this public policy. As Catholics, we believe that each person’s life is a sacred gift from God that must be protected. Needless to say, food is necessary to sustain life. Therefore it is prudent, if not a matter of justice, to offer support to farm families who grow our food when the weather or the markets go against them. It is also prudent to care for God’s creation so that we can continue to produce sufficient food for generation after generation. And to be sure, we want our brothers and sisters who are poor and hungry to have access to nutritious food, as Gospel teaching compels us.

Fortunately, the Catholic community brings long-time experience to the many facets of the Farm Bill. Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services assist millions of people living in poverty and hunger at home and overseas.Catholic Rural Life, the organization I serve as executive director, is coming up on 90 years of advocacy and service to rural communities, particularly farm families, who we believe are ideal exemplars of graciousness, pious gratitude and stewards of the land.

I believe this is important to California, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world and therefore has a major stake in the outcome of a new Farm Bill. According to recent figures, California’s annual $39 billion agriculture sector consists of 80,000 farms and ranches, and supports more than one million related jobs. California farmers and ranchers produce more than 400 different agricultural commodities, including fruits, vegetables, grains, cotton, tree nuts, horticulture, meats and livestock, and of course many fine wines. California is also the nation’s leading dairy state with 1.75 million cows. 

But at the other end of the food system, a startling 19 percent of California households reported struggling with food hardship in recent years. I’ve heard reports that nearly 1 in 4 California children live in poverty, despite the fact that many come from families where at least one parent works full-time. It hardly makes sense that a productive state like California can have such a lack of access to affordable, nutritious food.
But it’s not unlike other productive farm states with hurting families.

So the Church has a deep concern and takes an active stance on making sure Congress authorizes a sound and just Farm Bill. That means reforming public policy so that we enhance opportunities for farm families, strengthen connections between rural and urban communities and markets, improve soil and water quality, and provide healthy food for all people now and generations to come.

By advocating these objectives, and many more I could name, we can make sure that our elected officials fulfill their responsibility to stimulate economic growth throughout the countryside and ensure that agriculture remains an essential sector of the U.S. economy. But beyond the economics, we also are called to serve “the least of these.” I encourage everyone to join with Catholics Confront Global Poverty and stay engaged as Congress moves forward on the Farm Bill.

Need to learn more about the Farm Bill? Check out our Ag & Food web section at Catholic Rural Life.