Without a doubt, recent federal farm bills have hurt local family farms. Large corporate-style farming interests have benefited the most. Corporate farming interests have triumphed over family farm survival. Small-scale family farms have been disappearing as corporate-sized farms have taken better advantage of the farm subsidy system.
The era of the mega-corporate farm may have arrived, but even so, sensible policies can still help small family farms.
It is just within the last decade or so that the long-term prospects for small family farms have looked much more promising. The local-food movement, as well as the growing interest in organic foods, has given the small family farm new economic hope.
In rural areas of the Capital Region, from Washington County up the Mohawk Valley past Amsterdam, some farms have weathered increasing complexities to survive into the 21st century. Hard, 14-hour days and oversized machines are no longer enough to ensure long-term success. A successful farmer in upstate New York must also exercise expertise in the cyber-world of spreadsheets.
The interests of small New York farmers in areas such as Montgomery County and Schoharie County are by no means identical with the interests of corporate farmers in the Midwest.
Our region has an under-recognized farming community that was more or less shut out of consideration in the state economic development grant giveaway of 2011.
Not only was little invested in downtown business development, but the business insiders who arranged for the grant allocations apparently also neglected to share grant money with our regional agricultural sector. The taxpayer money ($750,000) promised to a brewery entrepreneur in Cobleskill was at least a step in the direction of creating a market for local hops.
What is clear, though, is that the regional farming community received virtually nothing in direct state development money. The unused money provided to Quandts Food Service in Amsterdam from the 2011 grant ($903,021) should be re-allocated to provide business opportunities for Mohawk Valley small farmers.
A measure of the problems with national agricultural policy is reflected in the old 2008 farm bill. The Congressional Budget Office states that 81 percent of all allocations went for food stamps (67 percent) and crop subsidies (14 percent) with only 3 percent designated for credit for small farmers, for rural development and for support for organic farming.
Imagine the difficulty trying to explain to my son how it is that the U.S. food stamp program is included in the federal agricultural budget. Why not in the health and human services budget? I could only offer him the observation that illogical complexity in the U.S. budget has an internal warp all its own.
And it is true that the unnecessary complexity in the pending farm bill is so imposing that most of the senators and representatives in Washington will probably have no more than a vague notion of what they will be voting on.
Nevertheless, here are a few low-cost provisions in the new national farm bill that could help the small farmers of our region.
First of all, an expansion of a temporary visa program for non-resident farm workers would help remedy the problem of an insufficient supply of help. All small farmers should legally be able to employ up to three non-resident farm workers at a fair competitive wage.
Second, in order to help with the ruinous costs of equipment repair, a grant program should be providing up to $15,000 per year to all small farmers.
As it is, virtually all the small farmers I meet complain about the costs and inconveniences of broken machinery. Apparently there is also a shortage of reliable farm machine mechanics.
Addressing these specific problems by means of specific relatively low-cost grant programs would be a gesture that the main actors in Washington and Albany value the survival of small farms in the 21st century.
At state level
At the state level, several measures could be taken in the 2014 budget to support small farms. One would be to reinstate the Cornell Small Farm Grant Program, which was left unfunded in 2013. Moreover, it is also in the interest of local farms to expand the programs of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
Another low-cost idea would be to expand a state Cooperative Extension program that would set up an even more formal, and better-publicized, farm market circuit in the Mohawk Valley and Schoharie Valley.
One example of an excellent initiative is Annie’s Project, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is designed to train women to manage small farm businesses. In New York state this program provides a six-week course in farm management skills for a fee of just $60. Twelve rural sites will begin courses early in 2014. More practical plans like this are needed.
It is in everyone’s interest that small farms begin to thrive again. A country that betrays its basic traditions by adapting its agricultural policies to serve the self-interest of corporate players like Monsanto, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, at the expense of family farmers, is well on the path to undermining its own historically important self-image.
Make no mistake: Small family farms still count, and they are an essential part of American self-identity.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.