Even at age 56 and with a satisfying job, I felt a surge of entrepreneurial excitement as I listened to farmers discussing their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms. It was inspiring to hear farmers describe how they got started. At a conference recently, hundreds of Midwestern farmers described their farms, typically supplying a few hundred households. We heard of farm members’ passion for “their” farm and the gratitude farmers feel for their members’ support as they struggle through droughts, floods, or untimely freezes. Farmers described the satisfactions of resolving problems, filling weekly boxes with delicious food, of creating new jobs in their communities, being able to pay a good wage and health insurance, earning a good income themselves, including saving for retirement, and sometimes training and helping to launch still more farmers.
Part of the reason for this flowering of new farmers is that advocates for agricultural innovation and sustainability have successfully advocated to create and fund programs to help such farmers get started and to succeed. Many farmers at the conference said that they had profited from federal programs helping farmers get started, especially the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant Program and the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which supports direct marketing of all kinds, including CSAs.
Given that the fastest growing group of farm operators are those 65 years and older, these are the very programs in which the nation urgently needs to invest. So it was a travesty of congressional failure, in a year marked by congressional failures, that the deal to avert the fiscal cliff included a destructive extension of bad farm policy, couched as “Extending the Farm Bill.”
While Congress did extend some Farm Bill programs, many of the policies it passed were irrational. Why would this budget-cutting Congress continue support for $5 billion of direct farm payments even to farmers getting record prices? Why would they fail to reauthorize the very programs that help bring new farmers into agriculture, create new markets, revitalize rural communities, and support the most innovative directions for agriculture? And given the heavy financial costs of last summer’s drought, why would they undermine the conservation programs that hold water in the soil, hold soil on our farm fields, and are the basis for the nation’s future agricultural resiliency?
Everyone who relies on Mississippi barges to ship goods to market and bring raw materials into the nation’s heartland should be appalled that the Farm Bill extension did nothing to provide for the long-term funding to protect and restore the nation’s wetlands, which reduce flooding by absorbing water in periods of high rainfall, then release it steadily to provide a reliable stream of water.
The nation does need a Farm Bill, but this bait-and-switch extension was a failure. Congress needs to pass a comprehensive, responsible Farm Bill, and soon.
The extension that passed in early January lasts through September, but it is important to tell all members of Congress that passing a responsible, comprehensive Farm Bill, addressing the above issues, as an early priority of this Congress. Call the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-1321.