3 Reasons to Pay Attention to Farm Bill 2012

Hobby farmers, take heed: Federal policy could dramatically affect small-scale farming operations—and the food that ends up on your plate.

by Dani YokhnaNovember 1, 2011
Three generations of farmers walking through a field toward a silo
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Legislation passed as part of the 2012 Farm Bill could support beginning farmers and affect how future generations operate their farms.

When you’re harvesting the pumpkin patch, Capitol Hill probably feels light-years away. While many hobby and small-scale farmers chose a rural lifestyle because they wanted to simplify and return to the basics of raising their own food, U.S. agriculture policy is closer and more important to all of us than we often realize.

Granted, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act—better known as the Farm Bill—is complicated and controversial. This large federal-legislation package sets the general direction for the nation’s food and farming policy. Enacted about every five years, the current legislation (which passed in 2008 and totaled $289 billion) is set to expire in 2012. The next Farm Bill is quickly making its way through the House and Senate Agriculture Committees.

“The Farm Bill is important to small-scale farmers and rural communities because, depending on how that policy is shaped, it can either provide opportunities for us or it can serve as a barrier to success,” explains Traci Bruckner of the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska-based nonprofit and national leader in sustainable agriculture policy. “For example, we can continue to subsidize the nation’s largest farms or we can invest in proven strategies that create a better future for small farmers and rural communities.”

Here are three key areas the Farm Bill includes that directly champion the priorities and needs of small-scale farmers. While the 2008 Farm Bill made strides in these categories, these programs must be advocated for once again or any gains will effectively be wiped out.

1. The Next Generation of Farmers
“If the Farm Bill doesn’t support new farmers, we are at risk of losing what it means to be an American because we are at the core a rural, agricultural nation,“ says Brett Olson, co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that helped launch the Young Organic Stewards program to support beginning farmers. “With the average age of farmers now 65 and average landowners age at 70, we can’t wait until the next Farm Bill to put dollars behind these programs. The time is now.”

A new comprehensive bill intends to do just that: The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act. This bill, which came about through collaboration among farmer-advocacy groups, would be part of the larger Farm Bill and support economic opportunities for young and beginning farmers and ranchers in certain areas, such as land and capital access.

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“The bill pulls together the best ideas from around the country for advancing new farming opportunities by building on the progress of previous Farm Bills and stepping up the pace of reform,” says Juli Obudzinski, a policy associate with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an alliance of grassroots organizations across the U.S. that champions federal policy reform.

2. Local Food
The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act, another new piece of legislation that aims to improve the Farm Bill, creates a package of reforms and programs that will encourage production of local food, not only by helping local farmers and ranchers become more profitable and productive but also by helping consumers buy locally through improved distribution systems.

“We’ve seen explosive growth in sales of local food here in Maine and all across the country,” says Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who helped sponsor the bill. “This bill breaks down barriers the federal government has put up for local food producers and really just makes it easier for people to do what they’ve already been doing. It creates jobs on local farms and bolsters economic growth in rural communities.”

3. Land Stewardship
The Conservation Stewardship Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program, both of which support farmers’ and landowners’ implementation of conservation-minded, restorative practices on their land, is currently slated for budget cuts in the new Farm Bill, wiping out more than 40 percent of the funding increases achieved in the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills, according to NSAC.

As legislation behind these three category circulates through Congress toward final approval, it’s important for farmers to keep connected to issues and make their voices heard by contacting representatives.