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by intern Shauna Nep

The next Farm Bill isn’t scheduled to move through Congress until 2012, but the House Agriculture Committee has already started gathering input — two-and-a-half years ahead of schedule.

Perhaps that’s good, considering how important the bill is. Both directly and indirectly, the Farm Bill impacts who can farm, how they farm, the types of food that can be grown, and the price of certain foods at the grocery store. In general, farm policy is a big part of the reason fast food is cheap and healthy food is harder to find. So what happens with the 2012 Farm Bill is a matter of concern for everyone, not just farmers.

So far, the House Agriculture Committee’s hearings suggest that the top debate for this Farm Bill will be whether government support programs are being used responsibly and effectively. Another issue will be the USDA’s current emphasis on an approach to rural development that’s broader than just making payments to big corn and soy farms.

While we’re piecing out the upcoming issues in this debate, it’s helpful to look at a few windows of opportunity in the upcoming bill:

-Could there be more incentives for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables, and not just commodity crops?
-Could accepting food stamps at farmers’ markets help to combat obesity?
-Should sodas be banned from the food stamp program, similar to the program’s existing bans on tobacco and alcohol?
-Could a “whole-farm revenue” concept for crop insurance replace the present system that encourages production of a single crop, and instead encourage more diverse crops?
-Could an expansion of the green payments program incentivize sustainable farming rather than overproduction?

Fortunately, Congress is talking like it’s open to change for the 2012 Farm Bill. Ag Committee Chairman Colin Peterson says that he is looking to make fundamental changes, and that everything’s “on the table.” USDA’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has emphasized the importance of local food systems.