Updated farm bill evokes mixed feelings in Virginia

Local farm products. File photo.

The locavore craze is spreading, and fast. American agriculture has come under public scrutiny, and more and more people want to know the origin of the food on their plates. Central Virginia’s hunger for food produced sustainably and close to home is fed by scores of nearby farms, but Congress may not be keeping pace with the rapid expansion of the buy-local movement.

Every five years, Congress refocuses the nation’s agricultural policy with a big piece of omnibus legislation known as the Farm Bill. On June 21, the Senate passed the 2012 Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act in a 64-35 vote. The bill has moved on to the House, where it’s now under consideration.

In certain respects, the Senate’s proposed bill is a triumph for organic farmers. It authorizes the National Organic Certification Cost Share program, which helps farmers pay exorbitant organic certification fees. Under the bill, up to 75 percent of certification costs are subsidized.

The bill also reforms the antiquated crop insurance system that puts organic farmers at a disadvantage. As Priscilla Lin of Environment Virginia explained, “Organic farmers are paying higher premiums for their crop-insurance, however, they’re not getting paid the price of their crops.” The Senate’s bill would remedy this discrepancy. “A really great amendment that was introduced and passed allows them to receive the price at which their crop is grown,” Lin said.

The proposed bill would also expand the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which was instituted in 2008. The program provides funding for farmers markets and promotes the sale of local foods.

“It’s a great program because it allows farmers to sell to local communities,” Lin explained.“It really builds support for local food.” The Senate’s bill devotes $20 million to the program—that’s double the amount that FMPP received in 2008.

Despite these advances, the bill leaves much to be desired. For years, large agribusinesses have benefited from extensive government subsidies, making it difficult for small-scale Virginia farmers to compete. Brian Walden, owner of Steadfast Farm in nearby Red Hill, deems the Senate’s bill “more of the same.”

“There is a local food push, but we’re not organized like [agribusinesses] are, nor funded like they are,” Walden said. “They rely on subsidies as their cash cow. But money doesn’t come free—or it shouldn’t. When it does, you just get lazy, and that’s what’s happened. They’re getting more for their minute of work than anybody else.”

Now, many are anxiously waiting for the House to release its version of the Farm Bill. According to Ms. Lin, Environment Virginia has been urging House leaders “to get moving on the bill and put in more provisions for local farmers.”

Brian Walden, though, is not optimistic.

“The Farm Bill’s no good,” Walden said. “It’s going to take a lot to fix it. And I don’t know who’s motivated to do it. Small farms need help for sure. But it looks like they’re not going to get it from the government.”—Katy Nelson