Farm bill unlikely to cover “local food” growers

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U.S. Capitol At a time when budget cutting is center stage in Washington, D.C., those who grow organic and farmer market fruits and vegetables are bemoaning the lack of any government assistance or “safety net” similar to what commodity grain producers have enjoyed over the years.

At the Izaak Walton League co-organized farm bill discussion earlier this year in Kansas City, it was pointed out that none of the farmers selling through farmers markets are covered by the current farm bill. “They are not covered in any of the commodity payments; they are not covered in the crop insurance payments,” it was noted.  The majority of the crowd in attendance already knew about being part of the minority of farmers in the nation selling locally grown food.

Additionally, one audience member yelled out, “None of the crop insurance will pay me for GMO contamination of my crops either.”

Another audience comment was in support of organic growers. “How do we deal with the inequities in the system? We have a lot of small organic growers that need covered based on the value of the crops they are growing, and that is not happening. It sounds to me like the farm bill is administered protectionism at its worst for conventional crop growers.”

One speaker who has done lobbying of Kansas congressional members and lobbied at the state level in Kansas had strong opinions. Paul Johnson, a farmer who with six other farmers have formed Rolling Prairie Farmer’s Alliance to sell food to about 300 households per week in the Kansas City and Lawrence, Kan., area, complained that Kansas had 140,000 acres of produce crops being grown in 1910 as households had large gardens and farmers were producing for the local communities. Today, the acres of produce total about 6,700 acres.

Rolling Prairie Farmer's Alliance is a community-supported agriculture (CSA) produce subscription service with the farmers in the alliance operating as a cooperative.

Johnson calculated that of the annual food consumption in Kansas, about $750 million is spent on fresh fruits and vegetables, but the local and organic Kansas producers are only earning about $32 million of that food expenditure. He further complained that only $40,000 of food stamp or government food assistance money was spent at farmers markets in 2010.

From Johnson’s perspective and a highly agreeable crowd’s perspective, he said, “We need to broaden crop insurance to make it available to organics and sustainable farming practices and make it work for niche crops. We need to increase conservation programs for working lands instead of land retirement programs and use that money to support a broader base of farmers with different farming  operations.

“We need to increase funding for research in organic and sustainable farming practices, and we need to do a lot more to increase the options for people to use food stamps and WIC coupons at farmers’ markets to buy local food.”

It is obvious that the Obama administration has given those described as the “locally grown” advocates some Department of Agriculture attention, but it has been verbal/news release attention rather than backing the stance with much money.

As attention will come back to lower level discussion than national bankruptcy, all indicators are that there is not going to be much government support going to “local growers’” as the 2012 farm bill has to be hammered out, especially looking at the cuts required under the debt ceiling legislation.

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Reg Clause    
Iowa  |  August, 02, 2011 at 03:11 PM

It is unlikely I could ever overuse the phrase, "be careful what you wish for" as regards people asking for huge government's help for their small operation. The history of farm programs in conventional farming is one of promoting consolidation with fewer and larger operations the norm. When the government buys down the risks associated with any business sector, the opportunists will enter as competitors as if with a vengeance. Then you will be crying for protection from that; which of course puts someone in charge of who "gets" to do this kind of business. As to research? Well, since technological outcomes are not expected for low tech production systems, the research questions are relatively few. There is and has been a ton of research on local food systems and non-conventional production methods at the Leopold Center at Iowa State University. There are many challenges to this business format and most of these center around costs. The conventional systems evolved to lower cost of production and processing. The core challenge for organic or natural production is to either get costs down or promote value that commands premium priced goods. The energy you expend trying to get government subsidies or market protections would be better spent on solving the core challenges that make organic natural less than competitive. Develop competitive business structures and alliances. Focus on the total supply chain with particular emphasis on logistics and distribution. Get it right for the customer. Bring a value package. Remember, being in business isn't about you. It is all about the customer and getting them to help you earn a living. USDA isn't very good at cementing your customer relationships.

kansas  |  August, 02, 2011 at 04:40 PM

Reg Clause... Truer words never spoken, "be careful what you wish for"! Goes well with the warning against this; "We're from the Government and we're here to help you." Organic operations that admit that they produce and sell no more than 4% of the produce required, at very significant premiums over their non-organic competition, are squealing that they don't get the same subsidized benefits the other 96% receive and demanding "equal treatment". I thought this was a free-market Democracy (aka majority rule)? Let them petition the nanny-state for special considerations and suffer the consequences along with the rest. I hope they receive the same loving care and help the rest of us receive from our politically appointed, bureaucratic overlords.

Delaware  |  August, 03, 2011 at 09:46 AM

Organic food is overpriced enough to support growers. Why should commercial gardeners and hobby farmers be subsidized? Do we owe recreational boaters a living, too? Tax all of them instead. We need the revenue!

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