By Kara Cusolito, Ithaca, NY
In early June, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) met with groups of farmers and agricultural workers to talk about the measures they’d like to see included in the next Farm Bill, scheduled to move through Congress in 2012.
I attended one of these sessions, and wrote about it here. To recap:
The listening session was held on an organic family-run dairy farm in Preble, New York, outside of Syracuse. With about 50 farmers and agricultural workers in attendance, Gillibrand talked about what was on her radar, and then took others’ questions and listened to their concerns for about an hour. It’s possible that she’s just a good actress, but Gillibrand seemed to be very in step with farmers on most issues: that energy measures are urgent, local food is good, GMOs are bad, small farms are important, and parity is necessary.
Gillibrand is the first New York senator in 30 years to sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which drafts the Farm Bill. It’s populated mostly by senators from Midwestern farming states. Even this year that’s still mostly the case, though Gillibrand is joined by several other representatives from the Northeast.
The Senator gave a list of what was on her radar, and it was mostly encouraging to hear a Senator list many of my same priorities.
Here’s what is on Gillibrand’s Farm Bill agenda:
- Tackling access-to-capital issues (vague, but sounds good to me)
- Strengthening the Guaranteed Loan Program
- Relaxing debilitating laws on value-added products
- Bolstering the FSA
- Addressing some issues related to the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program
- Including considerations for specialty crops
- Proliferating renewable energy
- Facilitating immigration and access to labor
The discouraging bit is that she was very adamant that making any of these changes in the current Congress will be a full-on battle. This is, of course, no surprise, but a little discouraging nonetheless. She did say that an immigration measure related to farm labor was one thing that might be agreed upon by both parties. Both sides agree that farm labor is increasingly hard to come by, and she feels that a measure that would allow immigrants to stay in the country as agricultural workers while working toward some form of citizenship is, perhaps, not out of the question.
At the New York event, Gillibrand emphasized that she will be the farmers’ voice in Washington, and that she understands the importance of the Farm Bill and of including measures for organic farmers and those farmers aiming to sell to local markets.
“The purpose of the Farm Bill is to keep farms alive, to let them prosper.” she said. “To do that, we need to change the system.”
She noted that farming is difficult financially, and the long-running tradition of big ag—particularly for corn—doesn’t work.
“Rarely do farmers cover the cost of production,” she said.
That’s a sentiment I’m sure we all can relate to on some level. For us young farmers especially, I think that many of Gillibrand’s bullet points are crucial in the next Farm Bill. Access to land and capital is a huge issue. Many young farmers are coming out of college, massive debts in tow, and realizing that maybe they want to farm for a living. Something as simple as being unable to afford land—or a tractor, or fencing, or soil amendments, or whatever—could be enough to discourage potential able farmers. In fact, I see it happening around me all the time. I hate it.
One thing Gillibrand didn’t address that I wish she did was the issue of young farmers. There are a growing number of us, and, in an ideal world, the Farm Bill could be a really helpful tool to get many of us going. It’s pretty awesome that we’ve got somebody who’s potentially very much on our side. I don’t know much about the other committee members, but it’s definitely worth making a phone call or sending an email just to get our voices heard. Do it!