Farmers feed us. They preserve the land they cultivate for the next generations. The image of the family farm is one we all treasure. Yet we all hear of the struggles of family farms and the rise of large corporate farms. Indeed, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that the number of American farms is decreasing while the average size is increasing.
In the 21st Congressional District of New York State, our farms are often small, family farms. The average size farm in the United States is about 443 acres; in our district, the average size is 206 acres. Nationwide about 31% of all farms have less than in $100,000 in sales; in our district, 80% of our farms have less than $100,000 in sales. We grow a variety of crops, and rank particularly high on the USDA’s list of producers of “fruits and berries” and “vegetables, melons, and potatoes.”1 Apples and maple syrup are important to us. A drive across our region with stops at our farmers markets tells the story.
For years, our farmers have complained that the Federal Government supports large farms which grow crops found in the Midwest while ignoring our needs.
About every five years, Congress passes the “Farm Bill,” a comprehensive set of guidelines which determine farm policy for the country and influence the daily lives of our farmers and all of us. The Farm Bill determines priorities in areas like price support of crops, loan supports to farmers, crop insurance, trade regulations, agriculture research, and a variety of other farming related areas. Many citizens are surprised to learn the Farm Bill also sets priorities for the food stamp program, known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The Farm Bill began in the 1930s with the New Deal. Like many federal projects, it is complex and has a bewildering set of rules.
Every year, the priorities set in the Farm Bill are funded and carried into action by Congress in the Agriculture Subcommittees of the House and Senate. The reports of these subcommittees are lengthy but include many of the details of the funding priorities for that year.
The USDA interprets and carries out most of these policies. As everyone dealing with any institution knows, tremendous power lies in those who carry out the Government’s actions.
The agriculture policies of the Federal Government are criticized by both liberals and conservatives. Although their perspectives are different, both agree that the Farm Bill policies favor large farms which grow crops such as wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton. In addition, the crop insurance policies of the Government also support the wealthiest farms, a practice the General Accounting Office (GAO) has reviewed but Congress has not acted on.2
Each year the Agriculture Subcommittees set priorities. A review of these priorities shows that many crops from the 21st Congressional District are not mentioned (look for apples or maple syrup, for example), while unique items from other regions are favored (support for Bighorn Sheep, for example).3
The USDA carries out these priorities. As one might expect, the agency focuses on the crops supported by the Farm Bill and priorities of the Subcommittees.
Work on the next Farm Bill is already beginning. The farmers and communities of the 21st Congressional District need to be heard, along with other areas which grow fruits and vegetables. Crops which represent a healthy diet in the twenty-first century must be supported. Crop insurance policies which support the largest farmers and insurance companies need to be changed to give them more transparency and added benefit for small farms.
As the Farm Bill is funded each year, priorities which reflect the needs of famers in our District must be emphasized: our crops, support for small farms and farming families, infrastructure for small farms. An example is the support from Senators Schumer and Gillibrand for crop insurance for malt barley.
Equally important, the USDA and other agencies which carry out these priorities must be pressured to define their work in ways which benefit all farmers, including those in our region. For example, the USDA appropriately supports broadband access for farmers to obtain use the latest information technology. Yet some publications of the USDA assert our broadband coverage is adequate by using outdated internet speeds, a tactic which deprives our region of proper attention we all know it needs.4