Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 31, 2013

Ag Forum: Farm Bill — Get it done

BY DIANE CONNERS Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — It’s hard to believe that we are just one month away from the Farm Bill expiring and yet highly partisan, polarized factions of Congress still have failed to pass a new bill.

With one more week before Congress goes back in session, there’s no better time to contact your representatives to urge passage of a full five-year Farm Bill — one that different types of farms can plan around and that those of us who want to eat good local food can count on.

While a lot of attention centers on aspects of the Farm Bill that are important for larger-scale commodity farmers of crops like corn and soybeans, there also are important measures for smaller, mid- and large-scale growers of what the federal government calls “specialty crops”— the fruits and vegetables health professionals say we all should eat, and which are so important to our local economy.

The bill also is important for the growing number of farmers who want to sell to local markets through neighborhood grocery stores, schools, and hospitals, or through direct sales like farmers markets and community-supported agriculture farms. And it’s important for beginning farmers if we want to have a next generation on the land providing us with food, given that the average age of farmers right now is 57.

That means the bill is important for all of us who love the flavors of our region’s food; appreciate the independence and resilience we are fortunate to have when so much food is available nearby; and want some of the money we spend on food to go toward keeping our own local economy vibrant.

When the House failed to pass the bill last year, an 11th hour extension was hastily negotiated on New Year’s Eve that left stranded 11 important programs with no funding this year. Those programs would have supported farmers markets, economic development around local food, organic and specialty crop research, conservation incentives, and support of beginning farmers.

After a lot of hard work, all of these measures made it into the Farm Bill that the Senate passed under the leadership of Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow. All but two made it into the recently passed House version. But that won’t make any difference if Congress can’t pass a final, joint bill. And if the stranded programs are left without funding again, crucial support and progress will be lost for “sustainable” and locally-oriented agriculture in Michigan and across the country.

The House version also separated food stamps from the bill, which is a foolhardy move. The reason the number of people using the program is growing is not because of Big Government; it’s because of a historic downturn in the economy. Linking food stamps to the food our farmers grow makes all the sense in the world, since it supports healthy eating in hard times — 47 percent of people on food stamps are children and 8 percent are seniors.

Fortunately, both House and Senate bills support programs like Double Up Food Bucks, which helps recipients of food stamps buy fruits and vegetables in farmers markets. Double Up helped put more than $100,000 into the farmers market economy of Congressman Dan Benishek’s northern Michigan district last year alone.

The House has delayed and delayed on passing a joint House-Senate Farm Bill, so Benishek might like to know your views. Stabenow, who worked tirelessly to get a bill passed, can only be bolstered by hearing from constituents on measures to support local food economies, young farmers, and conservation. The Benzie Conservation District is hosting the senator for comments and questions on the Farm Bill from 4:30-5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 5, at the Benzie County Central High School auditorium. Contact the Conservation District for more information and to RSVP.

The politics in Washington are tiring. Delaying with yet another extension of the current Farm Bill doesn’t cut it. It is time to get something done.

Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist in food and farming at the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute.