The Farm Bill
The Farm Bill dictates the origin of your food, the economic health of your community, the amount of control of big agriculture and factory farms, subsidies and who gets them, the price of your groceries, and whether or not you know where the food you eat comes from. It’s easy to write off the Farm Bill as some narrowly focused bill that only impacts agriculture, but in truth, it touches just about every American.
The House of Representatives voted down a version of the Farm Bill on May 18th in part because some Republicans wanted to leverage the bill’s passage on an unrelated immigration vote slated for late June. The Senate version of the Farm Bill, released on June 8, should reach a vote in early July. Many farmers and ranchers were happy to see the House bill sidelined, and see the Senate version as an opportunity to draft a better agriculture policy.
The House proposal weakens investment in local food systems; decreases support for beginning farmers and ranchers; expands subsidies for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and large agribusiness; and cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which provides meals for needy children.
The House plans to take a second vote on its bill after June 22.
First generation farmer Scott Horner says farmers need to know about the policies that impact them. “It’s vital the farmer is educated so that they can educate customers and get more people on board with helping make these decisions that are really critical.”
Scott says a lot of the Farm Bill is aimed at large, corporate agribusiness growers. “A lot of the Farm Bill is geared towards big guys, and where the law is, if you're small, you could get squeezed out of the business because of some of the regulations.”
The current measures in place under the 2012 Farm Bill support smaller growing operations more than the 2018 House version, yet both versions emphasize bigger operations.
Scott’s operation, Small Potatoes Farm, spans 10.5 acres. His farm sits at the foot of the picturesque West Elk Mountains in Paonia, Colorado.
“We grow anything from salad greens to carrots, beets, turnips. All the roots. Potatoes, garlic, onions. We do some flowers, and some herbs, and some berries, too,” said Scott.
Scott farms baker Monica Wiitanen’s land. Their symbiotic relationship allows him to tend to her land while doing what he loves and living off the land. They sell their products together from their homes 200 feet apart on Fridays and Saturdays.
Scott sells all of his products right off of his farm. Customers can purchase his produce from his barn.
“We sell right here, off this place. We used to sell off the farm to other places like small restaurants, or food coops, even natural food stores and stuff like that, but over the years, we've gotten to where we can sell direct right off of this farm only. We've found we don't need to do the wholesale thing, and people really enjoy coming to the farm to pick up their produce, and it's really worked out that way. Our only market is here, right direct off the farm.”
Scott depends on word-of-mouth advertising. “We have a website and stuff, but primarily, it's word of mouth. When you have a good product it's really neat to see how people just pass that information on, and bring people. They'll show them how to come to the farm, it’s cool.”
Scott’s mission has always been to sell as local as possible. “We've always been working towards staying as local as possible. Local to us now is in the North Forth Valley — a 30 mile radius.”
Scott says opportunities for small farms to flourish and bring life to communities like Paonia are important. He wants more opportunities for small farms to exist nationwide. “So many people are inspired by small farms, and are looking to feed their communities, and that it's becoming more economically viable for a small farm to exist.”
Scott has seen the effect of small scale benefitting his own community greatly. “Our customers are driven to come here and to pay potentially more money for a salad mix because they know they're getting food that was fresh picked that week. Customers know that they're helping to grow this economy right here and grow this farm. We strive to use local food and by doing so, we’re keeping the money in this valley longer. We're really growing a really healthy, viable economy here.”
America was deterred from small, family farms beginning in the 1970s when the government began to relax antitrust practices. Things accelerated due to deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s and was boosted in the early 2000s when the narrative shifted to demand that economies of scale were essential to feed the planet's exponential population growth. Farmers like Scott are rewriting the script.
“For a long time, it felt like ‘go big or go home’ was the only option for farmers. We saw what happened with that idea, with so many people going bankrupt with big farms, and then eventually all big farms were growing GMO corn and soybeans. And that's not really serving us for our food needs in our country.”
Like many farmers, Scott wants the Farm Bill to encourage healthy land, people and communities.
To get there, the Western Organization of Resource Councils drew on the expertise of its member groups to draft a Farm Bill platform that advocates for eight general issues:
Local and regional food systems — so that locally grown foods make it onto local tables.
Funding for nutrition assistance programs for needy families, because hungry children aren’t a solution to anything.
Restoration of competitive markets, to ensure producers get a fair price for their product.
Fair access to credit and insurance so new farmers and ranchers can have the same opportunities as their predecessors.
Thoughtful supply management to soften the blow of boom-and-bust agriculture cycles.
Strong funding for conservation programs, because healthy soils mean healthy people.
Investment in public research for the public good, so that seeds in Idaho aren’t the intellectual property of companies in Germany.
And, investment in sustainable energy, because farmers are just as affected by energy costs and climate change as anyone else.