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Fresh Fields

Farm Bill can encourage farm entrepreneurs, control sprawl

April 9, 2002 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Terri Hawbaker and father Howard Straub make a solid living, and even take two months off during the winter, milking a herd of just 100 cows.

Forget red-breasted robins chasing worms and daffodils popping out of the ground. These days one of the sure signs of spring is a construction crew out on a farm field shooting nail guns into two-by-fours and pouring concrete for mini-mansions and convenience stores.

Yet like grass growing up through concrete, entrepreneurial small and medium size farms all across the country are successfully pushing back against suburban sprawl. They’re doing it by finding new ways to market their high-quality products to consumers eager for greater food choices and food security.

A Congressional agriculture conference committee, which is meeting this month to complete the 2002 Farm Bill, now has a chance to really strengthen the new entrepreneurial agriculture and keep farm families on their land. The Senate version of the pending farm policy law contains several proposals that would for the first time put significant money behind innovative, profit-seeking farmers. One provision would invest $75 million annually into helping farmers develop new markets and products. Another would limit the amount of taxpayer money that goes each year into propping up the nation’s largest, subsidy-dependent farms. Such mega operations flood markets with cheap food, which feeds the growth of companies that now dominate the nation’s grocery shelves.

But these historic provisions are in danger. The conference committee already has proposed cutting funding for rural development in half, threatening the $75 million market program and other investments to help family farmers produce products that people really want. The committee may also do away with the Senate’s cap on subsidy payments to the nation’s largest farms. Without this cap, Congress will not have enough to invest in the kind of entrepreneurial agriculture that is key to rebuilding rural economies, keeping families on the land, and protecting farmland and downtowns from sprawl.

What the conference committee members must hear this month is that consumers, farmers, and taxpayers want a different kind of agriculture policy. Rather than throw money into further overproduction of a few crops, Congress needs to support farm families as they switch from glutted markets to diverse production and profitable futures.

Such an investment can generate significant returns for the nation’s cities and vital green spaces, as well. Healthy rural communities are more able to stand firm against sprawling development, which sucks the economic life out of urban areas and spreads congestion and pollution in the countryside.

Putting entrepreneurial agriculture to work for America’s land and people, however, requires a new type of thinking about farming and economic development. The mindset must shift away from the prevailing picture of farmers interested only in high yields and government payments to a renewed vision of farmers as innovative small businesses.

Like hometown banks or specialty retail stores, small and medium size farms are succeeding despite mega mergers all around them. They do it by adding value to their products with a friendly face or specialty processing, by finding profitable market niches (anyone for goat’s milk yogurt?), and by finding new ways to consumers, such as selling shares in the next season’s harvest to consumers who want fresh food and farms nearby.

Net returns for entrepreneurial farmers — producing all-natural meat and milk, marketing family recipes, or supplying restaurants with fresh vegetables — are often 40 and 50 percent versus the conventional farm’s 15 to 20 percent.

"Even a farm with only $50,000 in annual sales may net $20,000 to $25,000 to support the small farm family," says Dr. John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri.

That’s a significant economic factor for local residents and leaders across the country who are working overtime to generate jobs and save farmland and open space. But farmers cannot fully capitalize on new market opportunities alone. The new entrepreneurial agriculture needs local, state, and federal governments to help farmers transform their operations and rebuild free markets in a food industry where a few companies now control most processing and distribution channels.

The time is right for such help. Big name brands still dominate superstore shelves, but space is opening up in household and even institutional pantries for new farm competitors to build market share. In fact, smaller farmers with strong ties to their land and communities have a competitive advantage today with steep increases in consumer demand for safer, healthier food choices.

An estimated 23 percent of U.S. adults from all income and age levels, for example, now make environmental and health considerations a primary factor in their everyday purchasing decisions, according to the market research firm American LIVES. These consumers are driving the phenomenal growth in farmers markets — up 63 percent nationwide from 1994 to 2000. They’re also behind the record-breaking sales of organic products — up 38 percent between 1999 and 2000, nearly 10 times the conventional grocery industry’s average growth rate of 4 percent.

Farm families nationwide are primed to once again start feeding their neighbors, supplying regional cities, and making full-time livings on their land. Congress can help by putting taxpayer money in the 2002 Farm Bill behind innovation and diversification rather than the same old overproduction and industry concentration.

Patty Cantrell, a journalist and economist, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s New Entrepreneurial Agriculture project. Reach her at patty@mlui.org

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