A political moment for market farmers

Special to The Times

THE GOLDEN time at Windrose Farm comes just before sunset. The oak-covered hills behind us are illuminated with a golden light. No matter how long the day has been or how much work is still to be done, the farm is glowing with life. It is the perfect time to walk and observe spring.

The longer we farm, the more we are affected by our location, soil and climate. Our choice of what to grow is more and more driven by our belief in terroir, the true nature of a place. This act of farming has changed our values and increased our connection to the earth.

This is also the time of the new farm bill. Originally, the Agriculture Adjustment Act, which was created in 1933 when 60% of American workers were involved in agriculture, was intended to control the supply of farm product and to guarantee a fair price. The goal was to keep farmers and their workers employed and one way to achieve this was to take some land out of production and compensate farmers for lost revenue. Later, programs were added for soil conservation and land preservation.

Today this is a $350-billion program that includes income and price supports, environmental conservation, loan credits, agricultural research, marketing and education projects. Support and programs for the organic farming industry, as well as for fruit and vegetable farmers, could come in this year's bill, currently being negotiated between the House and the Senate (the 2002 bill, which would have expired last October, has been extended several times).

Still, the vast majority of the funds are used in support of the main commodity crops: cotton, corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, sugar beets and dairy, with $5.2 million for direct payments to a small number of commodity farmers.

Rarely has federal money or attention gone to the farms that grow the crops sold directly to consumers at farmers markets, such as salad greens, strawberries, fresh market tomatoes or apricots. The foods we grow at Windrose Farm are considered by the government to be specialty crops. (Actually, most anything you would recognize on your plate would qualify as such.) And these foods traditionally have not been included in the farm bill funding.

So this year's bill could be groundbreaking. This is thanks to two influences: the growth of corporate organic farming and a groundswell of pressure from small farmers and consumer groups.

In the years I've taken spring walks past blossoming apple trees, bouncing lambs, fields of garlic and onions, and newly plowed ground, I never thought that I would ever be concerned with the farm bill. As market farmers, my husband Bill and I believed we were removed from that political arena.

(Four or five years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a team around to visit small farmers and inquire if we were interested in some form of crop insurance like the "big guys" have. I will always remember Bill looking at them quizzically and saying, "Look around you. We grow apples, stone fruit, plus 20 varieties of vegetables. That is our crop insurance.")

So the new farm bill does contain provisions that could help small farmers and farming communities. Will it happen? At this writing, the bill is stalled in negotiations. Last week, while watching the sunset, I thought about what would be my dream farm bill.

First, it would no longer provide for guaranteed commodity subsidy programs. In years such as this, with record-high commodity prices, we can put these funds to far better use. The proposed revenue assurance program that pays based on need would save large sums of money in these boom years.

Second, it would be true to the original intention of the 1933 act to keep more farmers farming and get more people, of all ages, back into farming. Young people want to farm but cannot afford to buy the land or the existing farm, so mechanisms to provide lower interest rates to help purchase farm land would be helpful. Also, since a retiring farmer's biggest asset is his land, lower interest rates could help land conservancies give him a good price and enable the conservancy to lease the land to a new farmer.

Third, my dream bill would rework the school food program subsidies to divert money currently earmarked to buy commodity and processed foods for school lunches and have it go instead to local communities to set up real kitchens filled with local produce. Salad bars can succeed. Let's make this change easier for schools.

Finally, I'd like to see a bill that is more flexible and allows government agencies to react to current challenges. In this rapidly changing world, we need programs that can adapt to be there for the farmers and rural families no matter what the crisis.

My dream farm bill is not just about dollars, it is about restoring and giving honor. It is time to honor the farmers and their workers for their skills and hard work. Time to honor the young people who dream of growing real food for our people. Time to honor the farmer's dirty hands so they can also be proud hands.


Barbara Spencer is co-owner of Windrose Farm.

On the Side is an occasional feature of the Food section that offers stories and points of view from professionals in the food and restaurant fields.

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