Field Notes: What you should know about our food system

April 28, 2014, 6:30 a.m. ·

Despite certainty on the farm bill finally coming down from Washington, Midwest farmers still face plenty of unknowns. (Photo by Luke Runyon, Harvest Public Media)

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Food doesn’t just come from a grocery store. Millions of farmers spend their lives producing the crops and raising the livestock that we eat and use. So it makes sense: If you’re interested in what’s on your plate, you’re interested in what’s going on in the field. With that in mind, here are four things you should know about today’s food system:

The new farm bill became law in February

The Agriculture Act of 2014 was years in the making and it makes big changes to farm and food policy. The bill cuts about $8 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. It also ends the widely unpopular direct payment subsidies for farmers and expands the crop insurance program, which was already the most important farm safety net program.

For decades, politicians relied on a marriage between food stamps advocates and farm interests to pass the farm bill. Despite a rocky relationship this year – at one point the U.S. House’s version of the farm bill removed food stamps all together – the coalition remains intact.

Local food continues to grow

While there isn’t a conclusive definition for what exactly constitutes “local food,” the local food market continues to grow. From 1997-2007, the value of direct-to-consumer food sales tripled, according to a 2010 USDA report.

Despite clear consumer demand, many small farmers have trouble connecting to their local markets. In many cases, they’re just too busy farming to deal with marketing, delivery and food safety issues. Farmers and consumers in many areas are looking to food hubs – production, marketing and aggregation points that build local food infrastructure – to connect farms and tables.

Many food hubs leverage technology to make local food connections. That can be a problem for local Amish farmers.

The ethanol industry is bracing for cutbacks

U.S. farmers are growing corn in record numbers – more than 80 million acres in 2011. Most of it is used in livestock feed. But increasingly, more and more is being converted to ethanol and used as fuel.

As the government pushes for more renewable fuels, that demand for ethanol has driven an increase in crop prices. That’s meant rising profits for farmers and more money floating around farm towns.

But now, the EPA wants to roll back the amount of ethanol mixed into the fuel supply for 2014 and that has Corn Belt farmers worried. Ethanol supporters warn that if the EPA follows through, the rural economy will take the fall. Still, many economists predict a soft landing.

Climate change will change U.S. food production

Climate change is seemingly on everyone’s lips these days, but it stands to reason that farmers and ranchers will be especially affected by any changing climate – they already depend on the weather. So what will climate change do to food production here in the U.S?

Most climate models paint a bleak picture for the Great Plains a century from now. Scientists say it’ll be warmer, and the air will be more rich with carbon dioxide. Even small fluctuations in climate throw farmland ecosystems out of whack and a new study shows certain invasive plant species will not only be able to withstand climate change, but thrive.

Changes in the growing season, soil temperature, weed varieties and weather will test farmers and force many to adapt in the coming decades.

Learn more about food and agriculture production in the Midwest at Harvest Public Media.