Thursday, December 9, 2010

Leveling the farming field

[photo courtesy of Ed Coper, New Media, Slow Food USA]

Yep, that's me with my big mouth open, standing among fellow Slow Foodies on the steps of the USDA during the lunch break. I swear I thought Ed had already snapped the picture when I turned to... actually, I have no idea what I was doing. Yelling? Singing? Talking with someone coming out of a door? Yawning? Hmmm. Reason #423 there aren't more photos of me on this blog: I don't stand still very well.

I spent most of yesterday at the last of a 5-part series of workshops on Competition and Antitrust issues in the agricultural sector. (Funny, I've lived in DC on and off since the late 1980s and been obsessed with food my entire life, and yet this was my first time inside the USDA building. Next time I need to scope out the People's Garden.) The sessions mark an unprecedented joint effort led by the USDA and the Department of Justice to learn from producers and consumers about the current state of agriculture in this country and possible paths forward, with a specific eye to cultivating a playing field in which small, sustainable producers have a fighting chance to get (and stay) in business. At least that's my take on it. It was quite a diverse group, from the panelists to the onlookers to the folks giving testimony. People from across the spectrum of the food reform movement and around the country sidled up to the microphone during the public testimony segments and I had a chance to hear folks offer their stories, their suggestions, their hopes for a fairer food system. If our country is going to be able to feed itself, each speaker urged, we're going to need to level the playing field.

I'd first heard of the meetings a number of months ago from the folks at Food Democracy Now. (Hold on. Are you on their mailing list yet? You should be. Even my mom is impressed with the advocacy work they are doing. I get an e mail from her every time she signs a petition. Ah, moms. I'm proud of her.) I ran into the FDN dream team (Dave, Lisa, and Paul) in the hallway between sessions, returning from the Hill where they'd delivered a giant box of comments -- printouts from nearly a quarter of a million concerned citizens around the country, pleas for policymakers to break up domineering food monopolies and give family farmers a chance. It's always good to see some of my favorite food advocates. While the sessions themselves were somewhat meandering -- I don't want to say that the questions panel leaders posed could've been better, but, well, they could've been more probing -- I was proud to be a part of the larger effort of groups ranging from Slow Food USA to Why Hunger to Food & Water Watch to Farm Aid who had come together to demand safer, healthier food and support for the dedicated farmers who produce it.

During the session, I learned that our country has lost more than 800,000 farmers over the past 40 years and meanwhile the remaining farming population continues to age. While many of the folks going into organic farming are relatively young -- at least according to the informal data I gathered from farms around the country during the bikeable feast -- the recent trend of young people going into farming is not on a large enough scale to compensate for the aging general farming population. Not only is the work incredibly hard and poorly paid (reminds me of my days as a high school teacher), I also worry about the ability of these young farmers to handle the debt they are taking on to start these small but critical operations. In an economy like the one we're in, will they be around in 5 years? Then there is the competition they are facing from large, commodity-focused farms subsidized by the government and a food system that depends on cheap labor and low-quality products. My take home message: we need to encourage and support regional food systems led by these small, sustainable farmers. We cannot continue to be controlled by gigantic, self-interested food conglomerates that rake what few farmers remain over the coals.

While the next Farm Bill isn't up for debate until 2012, this first dipping of my toe into federal ag policy has definitely shown me that I've much to learn between now and then so that I can be a more educated and effective advocate for regional, responsible food systems. I'm hoping such learning opportunities in the future don't involve biking in 20-degree headwinds at 7am....


  1. Can one be a lobbyist for slow food? It kind of goes against what I generally think of as a lobbyist, but if it's for a truly worthy cause and not for a massive evil corporation, then I guess not. Maybe Slow Food Advocate would be a better title.


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