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Wanted: Grassroots Push for Improved Farm Bill

D.C.’s cuts could challenge growth of local food projects

August 26, 2011 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Photo credit: Gary Howe
  Grassroots voices are needed in Congressional debates on the 2012 Food and Farm Bill. Investments in young farmers and local markets are among many programs on the line.

Lloy and Rollin Jones will plant 15 acres of wildflowers in Kalkaska County this fall to help build back native species needed for food pollination. Students at Leland Public Schools are this year getting local farm potatoes, apples, and more in their lunches. A farm in Emmet County is still in the family and in full-time agriculture, not on the real estate market.

These developments are just the start of a story that more of us need to hear about the power of a few tax dollars spent wisely to build greater health, security, and prosperity in our communities.

In each of these cases, a relatively small grant or loan from the federal government helped move along a larger project: improved future food security thanks to native pollinators, including butterflies; kids learning new food choices; the return home of a farmer’s son.

As we head into 2012, these stories of small public investments making a big difference are becoming very important. Congress will soon turn its budget-cutting attention to U.S. Department of Agriculture spending on food, farms, and rural areas—otherwise known as the “Farm Bill.”

In the current fiscal firestorm, it will take major involvement from people at the grassroots to protect and enhance programs like those in Kalkaska, Leland, and Emmet—stories about making sure solid natural resources, healthy food, and strong farms are part of our future.

Call to Action
Michigan residents can play a particularly important role in the outcome of the 2012 Food and Farm Bill because our U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. She is a major leader in the 12- to 18-month process, which is already underway.

So it’s up to voters in Michigan to make the case, through their senator, that some of the smallest USDA programs are the most cost-effective, and should grow in the 2012 bill, not fall to more powerful interests.

Congress reviews and renews the Food and Farm Bill every five years. Since the 2008 legislation, the federal government has spent $284 billion on programs ranging from organic research (a teeny tiny amount) to global exports (pretty big amount).

The biggest share of the pot goes to food stamps and nutrition assistance ($189 billion) and major farm support programs like commodity and export subsidies, crop insurance, and conservation ($87 billion).

The 2008 Food and Farm Bill, however, mandated a total of only $2 billion, or less than one percent of its total, over five years, for rural development, organic agriculture, beginning and minority farmers, green energy for farms, and forestry. This amount also supports farmers markets and small farm business development assistance. It’s a tiny sum, given the number of programs it supports.

But voices from Michigan, with its great urban, rural, and agricultural diversity, will be a big help in the Food and Farm Bill debates, says Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

The coalition and its grassroots members across the country have championed many of the Food and Farm Bill programs that support local and organic agriculture, conservation, and beginning farmers. They helped bring programs like the Farmers Market Promotion Program, Organic Certification Cost-Share, and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education into being over the last 20 years.

Now the coalition is preparing to go head-to-head with well-oiled agribusiness interests in helping Congress decide where it should cut or grow programs in the next Farm Bill.

Food Security
Students at Onekama Consolidated Schools in northwest Lower Michigan’s Manistee County are among those who can attest to how some of the programs the coalition will be defending can make a big difference.

Last year, the Onekama district began serving fresh and local food from area farms, thanks to USDA Rural Development support for extending a successful farm-to-school program in Benzie County down into Manistee County.

Kids there are now eating better.

“It’s really, really, really good,” nine-year-old Hope Showalter told a reporter last November when the cafeteria served up a lunch with 23 items from nine local farms. Superintendent Kevin Hughes is proud: “We’ve gone from ‘heat and serve’ to ‘cut and cook.’”

Farm-to-school in the region will expand again this year thanks to a second Rural Development grant. This one will help Leland Public Schools do more scratch cooking with local foods. Part of the grant will bring Leland and other Leelanau County schools together to learn from each other and neighboring districts, said Diane Conners of the Traverse City-based Michigan Land Use Institute, who will facilitate the network.

Stay Tuned.
But those kids are not voters, yet. It’s up to everyday people to make the Food and Farm Bill connection and then speak up, over and over, through what is a long and complicated process. Stay tuned to the Institute’s Web site, mlui.org, for more information during the 2012 Food and Farm Bill process on what’s happening and how you can help.

Then, take action. The butterflies, the young farmers, and the school lunches need you.

Patty Cantrell founded the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Food and Farming program. Currently she operates Regional Food Solutions, dedicated to facilitating the growth of sustainable, local food systems, from her home in Beulah, Mich. She can be reached through her Web site.

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