Thanks to Michael Kilpatrick of Kilpatrick Family Farms for sharing his testimony to the House Committee on Agriculture. Farmers and consumers can share their ideas for the next Farm Bill by submitting testimony to the committee by May 19th.
Testimony of Michael Kilpatrick, organic vegetable, fruit and livestock farmer, to the House Committee on Agriculture
Kilpatrick Family Farm
Middle Granville, NY
Members of the House Agriculture Committee, thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony for the 2012 Agriculture Bill. I am twenty-four and a first generation farmer.
I’ve wanted to farm since I was six years old. My family has pictures of me standing in my first garden, grinning from ear to ear, holding the first cucumber of the season. I started farming commercially with my brother when I was fourteen, raising a variety of
domesticated fowl, hatching the eggs, and selling the young. When I was sixteen, we realized that vegetable production was more profitable and sold the hatchery business.
As the vegetable farm grew, we rented more land, put up more greenhouses, and hired more employees. Now, in our eighth year of commercial production, we have expanded to selling retail at three large farmers’ markets (two year-round), have a retail CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) supplying almost 300 families, and sell a limited amount of produce wholesale.
We have one third of an acre of covered (greenhouse and hoophouse) production, raise twelve acres of vegetables, and manage over sixty other acres in a mixture of pasture and woodlot for our laying flock, pastured poultry, and pork. The farm grosses well over $300,000 per year, hires six full-time and twelve part-time employees, helps support six different families, and has helped put five employees through college.
This is a testimony to the viability and profitability of small, organic farms. The farm has become internationally known as a leader in year-round vegetable production and hightunnel innovation, allowing me to travel across the country and into Canada to speak about the way we farm.
Our business, as well as the organic market, is growing rapidly, with double digit growth every year. We get requests on an almost weekly basis to begin a relationship with another farmer’s market, local school, wholesaler, restaurant, or food coop. We have hit our limit in land, infrastructure, and what we can manage as a small, family-run operation. We get an average of ten job inquiries for every open position on the farm. I get twice as many speaking requests as I can reasonably fill.
People are hungry for clean, safe, locally produced food and will spend more money and more time to find and purchase it.
What challenges do we face and what keeps us up at night? What should the next Farm Bill focus on to bring about real, effective change and make farms affordable once again?
REGULATION: From the FDA to the EPA to the DEC to the USDA, we are constantly trying to keep up with the latest codes, rules, and laws. From worrying about how much irrigation water we are using and where we’re pumping it from, to the latest poultry processing regulations, to the new Food Safety Modernization Act, the regulations that US farmers are subjected to has reached a critical level.
The fact that the government feels that it must regulate direct producer-consumer sales is wrong. Many consumers now take the time to research where their food is coming from, how it is grown, and can establish a relationship with their farmer. They should have every right to purchase what they feel is in the best interest of their family’s health and wellness.
FARMER EDUCATION: When we got started in farming, we received help from many sources. Two in particular stand out: SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and our local extension agents. Both were key to getting us off to a good
start. When we’re researching a new cover crop, looking for a new way to grow a vegetable, or just need some data, SARE has been the place to go.
Even now, we research their database whenever we face a new or challenging problem. Our local extension agents have been an amazing resource to help us with personalized information and ideas. They were with us through the late blight of 2009 and the flooding of 2011, bringing seasoned, experienced advice to help us make the tough decisions about our crops.
Over the last couple of years, both of these programs have had funding cuts which has decreased the availability of information and field agents. As organic agriculture changes, and as localized, year-round vegetable production becomes more prevalent,
there are many questions that need good answers and many ideas that we would love to research. We just lack the time and resources to do it.
FARMLAND PRESERVATION: Part of America’s greatness is in its amazing soil. It fueled the Westward Expansion, and even now its products are a major part of our exports and competitive edge. Good farmland is not cheap and it is being gobbled up by development companies at an alarming rate–over 1,200,000 acres in 2011 alone. That is 1,200,000 acres that will probably never be farmed again, that is forever lost to urban sprawl, shopping centers, or factories. While these need to be built too, there is plenty of space that is not on prime agricultural soils. As a young farmer who rents ninety percent of the land we farm, we personally feel the lack of good land available to us.
Currently, we rent parts of four different farms, with leases ranging from a handshake to a three year signed lease. None of these relationships are sustainable, and until the prices of good agricultural land drop to a reasonable level through the help of conservation easements, we will still be laying awake at night, worrying about losing the land we have worked so hard to make productive.
So what can you, our elected officials in Washington, do to make me a better farmer and help me feed our part of this great nation? How can you work to make the honorable profession of farming an easier field to enter and farmland more accessible to those who love the land and wish to steward it?
Food safety should be testing based, not infrastructure based. Requiring a certain type of infrastructure and having a “one-size-fits-all approach” creates prejudicial hardship on smaller operations and stymies new farmers and producers.
Saying that we have to have a million dollar processing plant before we sell one pound of beef to our neighbor is a huge impediment to food safety, sustainability and profitability.
Why would safety be a part of this statement? When you have 1000 cows being processed at a plant each day, the probability of cross-contamination is much higher than if you have 10. The reach of a food-borne illness outbreak for a local farm versus a nationally-based conglomerate is much less.
The government should pay for all testing to remove the financial burden on small farms. Testing must recognize the difference between pathogenic and non-pathogenic strains of contaminants. There is a difference in strains of E. coli. Some are normally found in your gut; some will kill you. Condemning product because it has E. coli in it without testing for the specific strain is not only wasteful but wrong.
If (and only if) pathogenic contaminants are detected, infrastructure should be required, but only the amount necessary to correct the problem. Unregulated direct producer to consumer relationships should be allowed.
When you put the human aspect of a food transaction back into the equation instead of food being just another PLU or feeling that your product is just another cog in the food machine, growing food for your customers becomes almost a sacred trust.
Remember, it’s the spinach fields producing truckloads of spinach a day, the melon farms producing hundreds of thousands of melons a week, and the beef plants processing thousands of animals a day that are the cause of major illness outbreaks, not the small family farms selling locally to neighbors and friends.
When you bring transparency and an open door policy back into the food transaction, everyone benefits.
Crop production and experimentation should be encouraged through research grants, extension, and land grant universities, not government subsidies. All government subsidies should be ended. If a crop needs price support to be profitable, maybe we are growing too much of it, or need to rethink how we are growing it.
Subsidies encourage waste, gaming the system, and poor farming practices. In 2009 alone, our country spent $6,100,000,000 alone on direct payments, an outdated and fantastic system that pays a farmer, even if no crop is produced.
On a side note, EPA ethanol mandates should be ended. It reduces the efficiency of engines, harms carburetors, and drives up the price of corn to unrealistic and reckless highs. It is a wasteful use of farm land and an energy neutral process. In the last two years, we have had to replace carburetors and rebuild engines on three machines on the farm. When we inquire the cause, it’s always linked to the ethanol.
More money needs to be spent funding SARE, Cooperative Extension services, and general education. The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (H.R. 3286) should be fully funded. It has the power to change how the local food system works through education, grants, and research. On another note, land grant universities should not be able to accept funding from companies that have a vested interest in the outcome of the the study, i.e., pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers.
The revolving door between agricultural manufacturing companies and the US government needs to be stopped. This would apply, for example, to Michael Taylor (previously employer by Monsanto and now Obama food czar).
Protecting our farmland is also vitally important. The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) administered by the United States Department of Agriculture has been a significant partner in this effort. The main goal of this program should be to protect at risk, working farmland for active agricultural production.
Program funds should only be used for permanent agricultural conservation easements. Since the 1970’s, almost 800,000 acres have been conserved. Unfortunately, however, far more than this is lost every year to development. It’s a sad day when the cows are sold, the barns are torn down, the fields bulldozed, and concrete and house numbers take the place of corn and green pasture.
Farming is not just another career for us. It’s in our blood, our way of life, and a lifelong passion. We want to grow old on our farms and see them passed on to our children and grandchildren. We want the government to support us through less regulation, less intervention, and with the tools and research to keep us competitive and on the land.
We want to see our land conserved and not bulldozed for the sake of McMansions and
Walmart. Let’s work together to make this happen.