Ohio farmers consider their next steps now that the Farm Bill is law

WKSU Quick Bites
By Vivian Goodman
2/21/2014

The former deputy secretary of the USDA, Kathleen Merrigan, shared good news about the Farm Bill at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association‘s annual conference last weekend in Granville.

“We’ll see more money for farmers’ markets and food hubs, beginning farmers and ranchers, more money for organic research. And those gains would not have happened had it not been for grass-roots advocacy across the countryside.”

It took two years to get the bill passed, and now, Merrigan says, the big game in Washington is implementation.

“This Farm Bill is nearly 1,000 pages. I’m sure you’ve all read it, but it’s a huge amount of work to implement. So everyone wants to get their provision on the short list. That’s what’s going on now.”

More help for small and family farms and local foods
The bill triples funding for the USDA’s Farmers’ Market Promotion Program.

Downtown Columbus’s Pearl Market hopes to use its new money to help food-stamp recipients buy more fruits and vegetables.

The bill also helps farmers stretch their growing seasons with plastic, temporary greenhouses called high tunnels or hoop houses. Beth Knorr of the Akron area’s Countryside Conservancy’s Farmers’ Markets says they’ve been a real help through this brutal winter.

“Everybody’s being really hard hit and even in some of the high tunnels the products are freezing. I can say without a doubt that without hoop houses, our growers would be bringing no fresh produce.”

Another provision of the bill allows research into industrial hemp production. It’s high time for that according to E. R. Beach, a hemp snack maker from Athens. He’s circulating petitions in the exhibition hall for a fall ballot issue to legalize cultivation of hemp for non-drug purposes.

“There’s 20 states right now that are talking about it in their legislative bodies. Now, with the passing of the newest Farm Bill and the president signing it, … the federal government has officially reclassified industrial hemp. And so that’s really going to open up the doorways.” 

Inequities remain
But some doors remain closed. Former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan says small farms are still at a disadvantage.

“This is not any game change. It is slightly regressive on some of the subsidy issues or the structure of traditional Ag programs. It’s just not where the American public is. I think that there’s a real … hunger for change across this country and Congress just hasn’t caught up.”

While there’s $1.2 billion for sustainable agriculture, there’s $7 billion in crop subsidies for Big Ag’s factory farms. 

Mardy Townsend’s biggest beef with the new Farm Bill is about crop insurance. She raises grass-fed cows in Ashtabula County.

“I’m very disappointed in the fact that most of the Farm Bill commodity programs have switched to a reliance on crop insurance. I cannot get crop insurance because my farm does not fit into the parameters that they want. Smaller farmers who have a much more diversified system do not fit the model that’s basically made for corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat.”

Most new Farm Bill subsidies are for those who grow single crops rather than the variety of fruits and vegetables small farmers bring to farmers’ markets.

More protection for the soil
But Shavaun Evans of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says at least now there’s a string attached to crop subsidies for the big guys.

“Farmers will actually have to have some sort of conservation plan in place to conserve our soil and protect the land.”

Phil Nabors of Blueberry Hill Family Farms in Loudonville came to a workshop at the conference to see if his soil, now growing berries, might also be good for hops, now that so many locally owned microbreweries are popping up. Nabors says change is coming thanks to consumer demand.

“The whole local foods movement is happening no matter what the government does or doesn’t do. Local foods is exploding. Look what’s happening in California, the 500,000 acres won’t be planted this year because of the drought in California. That creates great opportunity for Ohio growers.”

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