Editor’s note: This is part of a series of posts from Tim Steury, who edits Washington State Magazine and works a small farm just south of Potlatch, Idaho.

The headline on this morning’s Lewiston Tribune was hardly a surprise. “Federal ag payments look safe.” Following the brief panic when the President suggested cutting subsidies as a way of dealing with cuts in the agricultural budget, did anyone really believe that even George W. Bush could touch the ag subsidy sacred cow?

What Bush was suggesting was hardly radical. He proposed cutting maximum subsidies farmers can collect from $360,000 to $250,000 and closing loopholes enabling some growers to collect much, much more.

Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that unimaginative bastion of the industrial ag status quo, recognizes the basic inequity of agricultural subsidies, if not the philosophical and environmental problems. Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns has argued that 8 percent of producers receive 78 percent of subsidies.

  • All it takes is a look at the Environmental Working Group subsidy web site to understand how this works. Here on the Palouse, subsidies vary, according to acreage and production history, as well, presumably, as individual pride and willingness to work the system.

    Our nearest neighbor farms about 2,000 acres and receives a modest $18,000 annually. But south of here, a family corporation pulls in a solid $2 million a year. Not so incidentally, this outfit uses its size and subsidy to capitalize on economy of scale and ships in its inputs on its own, adding little to the local economy.

    This news about agricultural inertia contrasts dramatically with an article by Bill McKibben in the new Harper’s. Basically another illustration that necessity is indeed the mother of invention, the article examines the effect on Cuban agriculture of the Soviet Union’s collapse and resultant end of Cuba’s sugar export market and dependence on imported food.

    The short and simplified version of this story is that because of the sudden end of government subsidies for the sugar industry, Cuban agriculture has become largely self-sustaining.

    Neither I nor McKibben would argue that we should emulate Cuba in much of any way. But imagine that the U.S., like Cuba, all of a sudden became cut off from the outside world, suddenly becoming an economic as well as geographical island.

    Looking out my kitchen, I can easily imagine the local effect. The wheat greening the hills as far as I can see? Gone. No market. Nearly all of it is currently sent to Asia to make pastries. It’s pretty worthless for the domestic market.

    So what would replace it? Well, there’s an encouraging increase in hay production in the area, mostly north of here and east, towards the mountains. There is a downside even to this crop, however. The market that many aspire to? Japan. Hardly makes sense. Still, a permanent hay field on the most erodable farmland in the country seems more sustainable than constant tillage and high input required by conventional wheat farming.

    The scene I’d like to see out the window is cattle scattered across a permanent grassland. There’s nothing I like better than a good steak. I don’t buy the argument that I should eschew beef because it’s an inefficient protein source. Oh of course it is, if they’re eating (heavily subsidized) corn on a feedlot a thousand miles from the cornfield. But grazing permanent and well-managed Palouse hills and sold as premium grass-fed beef? Let’s try it.

    And from a very personal point of view, I’d a lot rather have a herd of cattle grazing across the road from us than the herbicide drift of another neighbor less skilled in agronomy and much more heavily subsidized than the previously mentioned neighbor.

    However, aside from a few ranchers like yet another neighbor who grazes his cows down toward the Palouse River, my pastoral vision is not going to happen under the current system.

    McKibben, by the way, is a remarkable antidote to the problem of "food porn"–the popularity of food as entertainment—that Molly O’Neill raises in her essay of the same name in the Columbia Journalism Review last year. “Will food writers pander to these readers or will they seize the chance to be better journalists?

    “Unfortunately, recent history-including my own-favors the former. In general, entertainment, rather than news and consumer education, has been the focus of food stories for nearly a decade. Food porn-prose and recipes so removed from real life that they cannot be used except as vicarious experience-has reigned.”

    O’Neill argues for context, for surrounding food with meaning. Only by understanding the complexity of our food system, from economic to philosophical-and by re-instilling direct, rather than vicarious passion-will we be able to get the good food that we desire.