By Aimee Witteman (cross-posted on Gristmill)
Last week, in a stuffy room on Capitol Hill, I joined a couple dozen activists and farmers to discuss the Farm Bill. Why? you ask. Why bother to meet in hot-as-an-oven Washington D.C. to discuss the legislative mess that recently sputtered to an all too drawn-out end?
While the ink is barely dry on the new farm legislation, the campaign for the 2012 Farm and Food Bill has already begun. Critics have likened the farm bill wins to "crumbs" because they represent a small part of the overall Farm Bill loaf. The relative merits of incremental change can be debated endlessly. But for people serious about changing the food system, the $14 billion of funding won in the new bill for programs that support everything from beginning farmers to organic production to conservation on working land represent real reforms that can benefit real people doing some really good things on/for the land and in their communities. And that's why this group of grassroots advocates got together: to wipe the sweat from their brows, roll up their sleeves, and begin to strategize a coordinated effort to ensure that money translates into real support for sustainable farming, environmental stewardship, rural economic development, urban food projects, and other good-food efforts. The funding in the new law has the potential to grow and nourish sustainable food and agriculture efforts around the country and in doing so, build the power of the 2012 Farm and Food Bill movement.
But first we have to get the word out.
Winner takes ALBA
Maria Luz and her husband Florentino Collazo embody the kind of farmer success story that we could see blossom throughout the country if farmers and organizations take advantage some of the new Farm Bill wins. (Photo of Maria seeding beets from Rodale Institute.)
Maria and Florentino currently grow organic produce, including melons and orchard crops, in California's Monterey County. Before becoming full-time farmers, Maria worked for 15 years at an asparagus-packing facility while Florentino harvested and packed lettuce in the fields of the Salinas Valley.
When Maria and Florentino decided to take steps toward realizing their dream of owning their own farm, they went to the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), a community-based organization in Salinas. ALBA's research shows that a typical farmworker in the Salinas Valley earns less than $20,000 per year, so the opportunity for Maria and Florentino to earn a gross income of more than $10,000 per planted acre was significant. But like most new farmers, they needed access to technical skills and financial assistance.
Through ALBA's farm incubator program, Maria and Florentino learned organic farming methods and honed their marketing skills. After several years of farming three acres rented from ALBA and putting money away, Maria and Florentino were able to purchase their own farm. The financing was made possible through an Individual Development Account organized by California FarmLink and a beginning farmer purchase loan through the Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency. Along with their savings, these programs allowed Maria and Florentino to buy 10 acres and start their own farm.
Today, Maria grows and sells hot-season crops from her 10 acres as well as cool-season crops from three acres she continues to rent from ALBA. She and Florentino market their produce through ALBA Organics and at the farmers' markets and farm stand at the Carmel Mission every Sunday morning.
Growing more farmers
Over the next five years, increased numbers of beginning farmers throughout the country will have the opportunity to benefit from the kinds of technical and financial assistance offered to Maria and Florentino. This is because there is more funding for beginning farmer and rancher programs in the new farm law than ever before, including a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, an Individual Development Account Pilot Program, a down-payment loan program, and others. Not only may more farmers get a start on the land because of these wins, they can also make a connection to the grassroots movement fighting for long-term policy change. Ultimately, this is the best way to ensure that legislative support for good policy alternatives will continue to grow.
There are many things that can't be left to the market if we want a healthier food system: making sure that private agricultural land is managed sustainably, guaranteeing adequate public funding for classical plant and animal breeding at land-grant universities, and bringing farmers markets to vulnerable rural towns and urban centers. These and other good programs like them also survived the Farm Bill fight.
So what happens now that the Farm Bill is over? We take the "crumbs" that we won, invest in our land, farmers, and communities — and build an even stronger grassroots movement for 2012.
Aimee Witteman spent a good part of her life where the Northwoods meets America's dairyland, climbing trees and eating squeaky curds. She currently lives in D.C., where she is the grassroots organizing and outreach director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow.