Farmers, Growers, and Local Markets Caught in Farm Bill Crosshairs

The 2013 Farm Bill hangs in the balance in Congress, awaiting a final vote, expected Monday. As Congress continues to struggle to get a new bill passed, farmers, small-scale producers, and advocates working to bring fresh food to the underserved are having to do what they’ve always had to do. Be creative.

When it comes to growing food and feeding people, things are already happening in Michigan. The state is second only to California in agricultural production, and is shaping the way that the country looks at urban agriculture. The exciting work happening on the ground in communities and in farmers’ fields can seem far from the halls of Congress, but they are in fact closely connected.

In Michigan, we’ve seen a jump in farmers’ markets around the state, more grocery stores are starting to label Michigan-grown and local produce and value added products, more supports for  the growing number of young and beginning farmers starting up organic farm businesses. We’re also seeing more innovative projects addressing issues of access to fresh, healthy, locally grown food in both urban and rural areas around the state. Across the country there is an increase in SNAP use at farmers’ markets, and in Michigan we’ve seen a big jump in consumers attending farmers’ markets that offer the farmers’ market incentive program, Double Up Food Bucks.

All of these examples show how Michigan consumers are demanding and engaging in local and regional food systems and how food and farm businesses are responding to that consumer demand for organic and local produce and products.

Gridlock in Congress that has resulted in last year’s failure to pass a Farm Bill and this year’s lack of funding for key programs means federal support has slowed—or stopped altogether the programs that support farm to school initiatives, new and underserved farmers, and other efforts to build a more sustainable future for food and farms.  This has impacted Michigan along with the rest of the country.

The Downtown Ypsilanti Farmer’s Market (DYFM), one of several run by Growing Hope, a Michigan-based non-profit, can’t afford to let what happens in Washington impact getting affordable food on the tables of residents. Market manager Christine Easley says, “this market serves as hub for healthy food access.”

She notes that 34 percent of all sales at the market come from low-income shoppers. Not only do markets like DYFM increase access to fresh, affordable foods for residents, but they also help build markets for farmers to sell their wares and increase their bottom line. “Without the chance to apply for competitive federal grants, we have had to make sure that we have other streams of income to help us to continue to do our work,” Easley says.

Several farmers’ market programs in use on the ground in Michigan, such as Double Up Food Bucks and Project Fresh, are partially funded through Farm Bill legislation. They help boost market sales across the state—last year, the Ypsilanti market alone generated nearly $150,000 in sales, which Easley estimates had a $762,000 positive economic impact on the farmers, vendors and neighborhoods they serve.

Many who run farmers’ markets or programs that support the markets are keeping their eyes on the 2013 Farm Bill process and the recently introduced Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013 in hopes that its provisions become part of the final 2013 Farm Bill.  Lindsey Scalera, a grassroots organizer with Michigan Voices for Good Food Policy, has been following the impacts of a tabled 2012 Farm Bill and the pending Local Farms Food and Jobs Act.

Scalera says, “Without these resources, it’s difficult for our government to invest in a more sustainable future for agriculture—and especially now is when all farmers, especially young and beginning farmers, need help.” She says Michigan needs the help to continue the growth of local and regional food systems and make it easier for new farmers to get started in agriculture.

“With programs like the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program and Value-Added Producer Grant Program stranded without funding until Congress passes a new bill, we lose out on the supports that could help young farmers contribute to their local economies and communities,” Scalera says. “These programs are investments in the future of food and agriculture and as the average age of farmers increases, they are crucial to the future of our food system. For a sustainable and robust food system, we must consider the next generation of farmers now.”

In the Farm Bill currently being debated in Congress, it looks like legislators have heard the message from grassroots organizations—both the Senate and House have included restored funding for programs like the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program (which would then be called the Farmers Markets and Local Food Promotion Program).

Pieces of both the House and Senate’s draft bills also currently contain restored funding for the Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program and provide funding for incentives through the SNAP program to encourage low-income consumers to purchase healthy local food directly from local farmers.

These programs—which were included in the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act and are now in the 2013 Farm Bill, should it pass—will support direct farmer-to-consumer marketing and provide grants to scale up local and regional food enterprises, including processing, distribution, aggregation, storage, and marketing.  This translates into an increase in support for community farmers like the ones that come to sell their wares at the Ypsilanti market, and others across the state and country. Growers hope that this increase will help promote the availability of locally grown food. It also has the potential to support bringing younger Americans into farming.

“In Michigan, that means there could be more tools for schools looking to source food locally, more sources of financing for food hubs and other infrastructure projects, and more programs that help make healthy food accessible to all,” Scalera says.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. says that the Farm Bill will reduce the deficit and create new jobs. Michigan has been hit hard by a sluggish economy and high unemployment rates.

“Because the Agriculture Committee worked across party lines to cut unnecessary programs and streamline others, we were able to reduce the deficit while strengthening initiatives that boost exports, help family farmers sell locally and spur innovations in new bio-manufacturing and bio-energy industries,” she says.

While Michigan farmers, and market managers hope that Congress will pass the Farm Bill, they continue to be creative in coming up with resources to continue to support themselves, the communities they serve and the state’s economy.

Scalera says: “We need a Farm Bill that is responsive to the skyrocketing consumer interest in sustainable, locally-grown and locally-made produce and products—which means we need a bill that helps put the supports in place to expand local and regional markets, to increase opportunities for young and beginning farmers to start and stay farming, to invest in programs that help farmers protect our soil, air, and water so we are able to continue farming into the future, and to increase education and research opportunities to advance sustainable and organic agriculture.”

2 thoughts on “Farmers, Growers, and Local Markets Caught in Farm Bill Crosshairs

  1. Even if the Farm Bill tosses a few coins out to programs that support or encourage sustainable agriculture, the Bill will send billions to industrial agriculture, using tax dollars to make their poisoned processed “food” cheap, and thereby making real locally and organically grown food seem expensive by comparison. It seems to me that rather than try to get a few crumbs from industrial ag’s Farm Bill pie, those who support the Food Movement should oppose any “Farm Bill.”

    Just my two cents worth.

  2. I totally agree. the fortunes of local food do not depend on government programs nearly as much as industrial commodity ag. I think that if you cut all the assistance to big and small ag, small ag would manage and big ag would flop.