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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Push for a new agricultural policy

Food Forum Focuses on Fair Farm Funding

A fine feast featuring locally
sourced fresh food.
(Tim Faulkner/ News)
PROVIDENCE — Farming in Rhode Island ain’t easy. Start with the backbreaking physical labor, move on to the long hours, add a sporadic and variable income, endless layers of state and local bureaucracy, and a federal farm policy that, to paint with only slightly broad strokes, doesn’t work for any farms in New England. It’s enough to make you wonder how agriculture hasn’t completely closed up shop in the biggest little.

Most agricultural subsidies in the United States are distributed to large farms, mostly in middle America, that grow corn, wheat, soy, canola and sorghum — the so-called commodity crops. These crops are traded in vast quantities on commodities markets worldwide, and in many cases, the government subsidizes their cultivation because they cost more to grow than the market will bear in cost. 

Few subsidies actually go to growers of fruits and vegetables, and even fewer go to the small, highly diversified farms one finds in Rhode Island. In fact, most farms in the Ocean State aren’t even designated as “rural” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, further limiting government resources for local farmers.
Rep. Chellie Pingree
This year, Congress will begin shaping the next Farm Bill, and proponents of regional food systems as tactics to address the health of our economy, environment and citizens are seeing this as a major opportunity to redirect some of those federal subsidy dollars. One of those proponents is Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who delivered the keynote address at this year’s Farm Fresh Rhode Island Local Food Forum, held Feb. 7 at Brown University.
Pingree, along with co-sponsor Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has proposed the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act (S.1773, H.R. 3286) for inclusion in the next incarnation of the Farm Bill. The bill aims to divert a small fraction of the some $12 billion in agricultural subsidies distributed annually in the United States to strengthen local and regional food systems. In the past 16 years, Rhode Island has received less than a tenth of a percent of all federal farm subsidy dollars.

Twelve billion dollars a year is a lot to pay for a system that relies on a growing list of toxic chemicals, drugs and futzing around on a nucleic acid level to remain operating. “But the good news,” Pingree said, “is the trend is moving in the opposite direction.”
Indeed, U.S. farmers' markets have doubled in number during the past decade; organic, local and sustainable continue to be the top trends in food retailing; and agriculture in Rhode Island, despite its lack of funding, insurance and security as an industry, continues to be a source of economic activity for the state.
Pingree said the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act gives extra attention to local and family run farms, while also making it easier for the public to buy locally grown food. The bill also boosts funding for farm loan programs, food safety, and small-farm slaughterhouses and processing facilities. Seniors, students and low-income programs such as SNAP also get added funding. Funding these measures, Pingree said, represents a fraction of national agriculture subsidy expenditures.
The outlook for Pingree's bill is uncertain at best. Both Rhode Island members of the House of Representatives support the bill, but not a single Republican has signed on to the measure.
Farmers and foodies fraternize at the forum.
(Tim Faulkner/ News)
Bill Stamp, head of the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, was one of the few of the 200 attendees at the recent forum to question the bill's focus on small, local farms. "If we're going to feed the country, agricultural land has to survive and produce food in large quantities," he said.

During the past decade, small farms have grown dramatically in Rhode Island. Tess Brown-Lavoie operator of a small urban farm on the city's West Side said federal policies could do more to help urban farmers. "There's so many exciting people who want to start farms in cities and urban areas," she said.
Cris Coffin, New England director of the American Farmland Trust, noted that Rhode Island is second to New Jersey in losing farmland to commercial and residential development. Across the country about 1 million acres are lost every year to development, according to Coffin.
Coffin encouraged farmers to explain the importance of the Farm Bill to customers. "(Customers) are completely clueless about what's in the Farm Bill and we have to educate them."
One big point needing attention, said Noah Fulmer, director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, is how farm subsidies make it harder for local farmers to compete with Big Agriculture. In Rhode Island, only 1 percent of all farm products sold in the state are from Rhode Island.
"If we are serious about going over 1 percent we have to think about the policies in effect," he said.
Though the Farm Bill has overlooked local and regional food systems for the past 40 years, Pingree said, “This is the perfect moment in time for real change in our food system. The public is there, but we need to move the policy makers and the funding. This is a major revolution that everyone needs to be a part of.”