By Susan Prolman, executive director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)
I’m often asked questions about the food system, the Farm Bill, and the future of organic food. As we look toward the 2012 Farm Bill, here is a breakdown of what I am talking about most:
Are we doing enough to increase demand for organically, sustainably, and locally produced foods?
A growing number of consumers, along with supermarket and restaurant managers, are asking for foods produced in a better way. Demand, however, is outstripping supply.
Why isn’t the supply of good foods more robust?
For decades, our federal government has promoted a bigger-is-better approach to agriculture, often at the expense of farmers and farmworkers, rural communities, the environment, wildlife, farm animals, consumers, and the public health. Government policies have contributed to pushing many small and midsize producers out of farming. This has resulted in fewer, larger operations that rely more heavily on inputs like chemicals, energy, and water, and less on good stewardship. “Conventional” agriculture consists largely of monocropping and factory-farming.
The small and midsize producers who have stayed in farming struggle to make their operations financially viable. Some need off-farm jobs to provide income and health insurance. Many children of farmers have opted to get out of the family business. As a result, we have an aging farming population. Today, there are five times as many farmers who are 75 years and older than there are under the age of 25.
Is there hope?
Yes. There is a growing movement of people inspired to start sustainable farms. More schools are teaching students about sustainable agriculture, and more young people see producing healthy food as a way to contribute and be of value. There is more diversity among young people seeking to enter farming, including more women and more members of recent immigrant families.
NSAC is working to break down barriers to entry for these beginning farmers.
What are obstacles for new farmers?
It’s expensive to buy land and equipment. Many young people who have apprenticed on sustainable farms simply don’t have the capital to start their own. Some of these folks are new to farming, or farming skipped a generation in their families, so they need to build knowledge to take on the challenging job of running a farm.
Are there resources to help them succeed?
Yes. Thanks to years of advocacy, there are now great U.S. Department of Agriculture programs to assist beginning farmers, and to rebuild local and regional food systems.
One program encourages retiring farmers to sell or lease their land to beginning or minority farmers who will use sustainable farming practices. Another helps new farmers obtain more affordable loans. Another connects them with experts who provide training and support. There’s also a program to help with the cost of organic certification.
What’s happening on Capitol Hill?
In the lead-up to the farm bill, NSAC will advocate for greater assistance new farmers, for example through microloans for young farmers and expanded farming opportunities for military veterans.
An important item to watch for is the Farm Bill. This legislation sets most agricultural policy in this country, and it will be rewritten in the next year or two. Unfortunately, this won’t be easy. Programs that help sustainable farmers are already threatened with huge funding cuts. Some are at risk of being cut altogether, like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers, National Organic Certification Cost Share, and Farmers Market Promotion Program.
How can you help?
We need a national strategy to support new farmers. To start, call your members of Congress and asking them to cosponsor the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act. This bill will strengthen and expand Farm Bill programs, and may ultimately be worked into the Farm Bill.
Also, think of how amazing it would be if everyone who cares about good food speaks up during the Farm Bill debate. I recommend signing up for NSAC’s action alerts, or the action alerts of another organization in your area. This will provide up-to-the-minute opportunities to help to shape our country’s agriculture policy.
5 Ways to Farm If You’re Not a Farmer – Rodale.com
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Action Alerts