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Farm bill: what are we hoping for?

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(The second of two parts)

By DEBORAH E. LANS

GHENT—If there is one thing on which all of those concerned with local agriculture can agree it is that farming here is a vastly different business from that of the mid-West and West Coast industrial complexes. From those disparities grow the differences in what area representatives hope to see in the next federal Farm Bill.

By way of example, the size of an average farm in Iowa or California is about double that in Columbia County and net farm income in Iowa is double, and in California five times, that of our Columbia County farmers, who averaged $37,247 according to the U.S.D.A. 2017 Census of Agriculture.

In all, the county had 518 farms, per the 2017 Census, occupying just shy of 100,000 acres (or 24.4% of the county’s lands).

Statewide, few of our farmers are BIPOC (139 blacks out of 57,000 farmers), although there were more black farmers than white in the early 1900s before government policies forced minorities out. Farmers as a whole are an aging population, although the percentage of new farmers (in the business fewer than 10 years) is growing in New York. Many of our farmers—especially the “new” ones—focus on so-called specialty crops, like vegetables, on small plots of land.

Many aspects of the Farm Bill are unsuited to “our” farms and farmers. An example frequently given by those who grow vegetables is crop insurance. In many ways, crop insurance programs are written with the monoculture (corn or soybean) mega-farms in mind, not our small operations.

Given the complexity of the bill, it is not surprising that many of the reasons take us into the details (call it the weeds?). For example, “whole farm revenue protection” insurance is designed to protect the revenue of a farmer’s entire operation, not just one commodity. As such, it would be well suited to a diversified farm, like many of our specialty farms. But according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), the paperwork associated with the application is so burdensome as to discourage smaller farmers from enrolling.

Crop insurance is also ill-suited to our current experience of climate. As Chris Cashen of the Farm at Miller’s Crossing explains, planting for vegetables is “a year-round effort.” To establish a viable succession, he plants every week. The weather can easily throw planting plans “out the window, “ if weeks of drought, which we had earlier in the summer, or days of microbursts, which we are having now, make it impossible to plant. Many forms of insurance are more suited to a single disaster than a succession of smaller events.

Crop insurance is also unavailable if a farmer uses a practice that reduces historic yields in any way. But temporary yield drags are common on farms that adopt new conservation practices, like cover cropping or organic techniques. Instead of penalizing the adoption of conservation-minded techniques, local farmers and advocates wish that the Farm Bill would provide cost-sharing or insurance premium discounts for the implementation of climate smart practices, like cover-cropping.

Cover-cropping posits that a field will never be bare. For a dairy farmer, that might mean that feed corn is grown in summer and, once cut, that a grass is planted for forage for the cows in winter and until the corn is again seeded. As a result, carbon is sequestered in, not released from, the soil, and soil health is enhanced. The earth also becomes more resilient to storms because the roots hold the soil in place. As one local farmer put it, the dust storms of the 1920s, and that are now being seen again in the mid-West, should and would be a thing only of the past, and “Big Muddy would be less muddy due to run-off” if only conservation practices like cover-cropping were more encouraged by the bill.

Enhancing the benefits of the Farm Bill for small farms and sound conservation practices are a focus of our local representatives.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently introduced a bill, with a number of co-sponsors, the “Small Farm Conservation Act,” that would simplify and streamline the complex application and approval processes for small farmers seeking incentives to implement sustainable and regenerative agriculture practices. The bill would create a bonus payment for farms under 50 acres employing such practices and enhance the technical support available to farmers.

At his recent Chatham Listening Session, Congressman Marc Molinaro (R-19th) likewise listed as among his priorities providing funding for conservation practices that enhance carbon capture and sound soil and water management.

Another area of continuing local concern is the Dairy Margin Coverage program. Jim Davenport, who describes himself as one of the few dairy farmers left in the county, milks around 70 cows at his Tollgate Farm in Ancramdale. He explains that the program is of increasing importance in times, like these, “of geopolitical tumult and crazy weather.”

The cost of producing milk has many inputs, and an important one is the price of grain, even for Mr. Davenport who mainly feeds his cows the forage he produces on the farm. Grain prices have soared recently, largely due to the war in Ukraine. The Dairy Margin program pays insured farmers when the difference (margin) between milk prices and production inputs exceeds the federally-set target.

Congressman Molinaro, echoing this concern, is seeking to increase the amount of margin coverage to fully meet dairy farmers’ needs.

Access to markets is another issue on many minds. Congressman Molinaro would like to see state and local institutions mandated to purchase a set percentage of their food needs locally and to see Canadian markets opened to New York product. Mr. Cashen would like to see the expansion of programs permitting the use of SNAP funds (what used to be called food stamps) at local food outlets.

Apropos of opening markets, several speakers at the Molinaro listening session urged the reversal of an Obama-era federal policy that precludes schools from serving whole milk, arguing that children often will not drink the lower fat product and need the calcium milk supplies. A bill has been introduced in the House that would implement the change. It has bi-partisan support and has been co-sponsored by Representatives Molinaro and Pat Ryan (D-18th).

Finally, policies that enable the BIPOC community to re-enter farming are an often-cited goal to reverse past inequities, as are policies that support young farmers and therefore seed the future.

As local resident and food writer Ruth Reichl said in an interview with the Columbia Paper, “Food shows us our values, and raising food is a good way of life.” The 2023 Food Bill will show us whether traditional family farming and raising nutritious foods, accessible to all, are still valued by our politicians.

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