Texts: Psalm 96; Mark 6: 30-44
It was pouring on Friday as I made my way through the Highland Park Farmers Market. I normally don't get to do anything like this on a weekday but I was through with family court in New Brunswick and I really wanted to see what that market had to offer not to mention the Better World Cafe run by the Highland Park Reformed Church. That's the one giving sanctuary to five Indonesian Christian men afraid to return because of Islamist radicals burning churches and attacking worshipers. Five minutes over the Albany Avenue Bridge into Highland Park, swing around Third Avenue and park on the other side of the church and try lunch – which, by the way, was really, really good.
As I went from tent to tent, I saw a sign saying “certified organic” and made my way over to the stand, and who should I see but Karley Corris. That's where I got my gold zucchini, patty pan squash, and garlic to die for. It's so nice to have native garlic, not the kind imported from China. As an aside, you should check out her stand. She's in Red Bank today. Her produce is exquisite. Even in the pouring rain, there's something about a farmers market that makes you appreciate the the bounty of God's good earth.
Last month the Senate passed “The Agriculture Reform Food and Jobs Act of 2012,” or, as it's commonly called, the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill comes up for renewal every five years. This bill, now in the House, reflects several battles in agricultural policy, primarily those of agribusiness against small farmers, the use of genetically modified crops or GMOs.,land conservation policies, fertilizer runoff issues, and, believe it or not, the SNAP program – or food stamps. The Senate cut $4.5 billion – yes, I said billion – from this program that helps to feed needy families. I mean, after all, what's a needy family compared to the four companies that virtually control every aspect of American agriculture, meat production, and poultry houses?
We in the urban east don't usually think about the farm bill because we go to Shop Rite or Pathmark and buy our food. The seasonal farm markets have a quaint air to them and we think we're doing our bit for the environment by shopping there. And we are, but it's not enough. Because in the halls of Congress money rules and Karly Corris and her fellow farmers have little impact compared to Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill with their millions of dollars to spend in Congress to fight off such groups as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the National Wildlife Federation or the American Farmland Trust.
What do conservation issues have to do with the Farm Bill? Plenty! The farm bill includes legislation on poultry runoff inspection. The House Agriculture Committee version actually prevents the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing new rules for fair contracts for poultry farmers. The Department of Justice issued a report on the lack of competition in the livestock industry as a result of the work of GIPSA. What's this have to do with us? Lots! Have you ever been to a commercial chicken farm like Perdue? Calling it a farm is a travesty of the word farm. They are nothing more than packing houses with living things – squeezed in, beaks cut off, and, to put it politely, waste that is so deep that the workers have to wear waterproof fishing boots to wade through. This kind of agribusiness affects land conservation policies because all that – er- ah-- stuff goes somewhere and it makes land unusable for agriculture. The Chesapeake Bay gets the runoff from Perude in the Delmarva Peninsula and it has been a leading cause of algae blooms and low oxygen. We're not talking about a few chickens hers; we're talking about 568 million chickens – annually.
Farming is not inherently a polluting business but the practice of feedlot concentration and factory farming make pollution a major concern. Four companies produce 72 percent of our beef, 63 percent of our pork, and 57 percent of our chickens. And those companies want relaxed rules for environmental protection of our waterways and wetlands. And do they have money to lobby Congress. Just one example. Rep Steve King of Iowa, who receives a large percentage of his campaign contributions from agribusiness has introduced an amendment to nullify animal cruelty laws, such as the one in California that requires egg laying chickens to have cages large enough to move around. If you don't buy cage free eggs, your eggs come from a chicken that has had its wings clipped, its beak cut, and that sits in its own waste. Oh, you don't have to worry about the eggs; they are run through a special washer. The Senate bill has no anti-cruelty measures in it.
Then there are the subsidies. Agribusiness gets direct payments from the government to keep production down and prices artificially high. Then there is the whole issue of genetically modified seeds; in the old days, a farmer took the seeds from his crop for planting. Can't do that with GMOs; they don't reproduce so the farmer is forced to buy new seeds every year.
So, back to Karley and her organic farm. As an organic farmer, she has to pay a 5 percent surcharge on crop loss insurance policies. Moreover, organic farmers must pay into traditional programs that promote so-called conventional products, the kind that use pesticides and all the good chemicals that go into your body. It's one of the reasons that organic produce costs more, whether you get it at a farmers market of at the Shop Rite.
Now, the feeding the multitude story is the only miracle that appears in all four of the gospels. Nothing supernatural happens here; what Jesus does here is to create a community of sharing which enables all to eat more than their fill. The message for us is clear. We need to create a community of sharing rather than a society that rewards greed, mismanagement of the environment, factory farming, and cruelty to animals. We need to remember that we are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and minister to the marginalized of society. The Psalmist tells us that the earth is the Lord's and that we will be judged under a divine standard of equity and righteousness, a word that encompasses justice and mercy. We have an opportunity to shape farm policy for the next five years. Our members of Congress need to hear from us on the truly important issues contained in the bill. As the bumper sticker says, “No farms, no food.” Let's make sure that farming is healthy and sustainable, and there will always be enough food for all.
Let us come to God in prayer: You who created the world with its bounty, who gives us minds to discern and hearts to love, help us as we seek fair and equitable farm and food policies. Amen