COLUMNS


Occupy the Farm Bill: Taking Our Seat at the Table

By Annie Cheatham


Except for high tunnel salad operations, mulched or stored root crops, or warm greenhouses sprouting next spring's petunias, most farms in New England have drifted into winter rest in this season of the New Year. However, New Year's wishes are being whispered as we hang the new calendar.

Berry growers are wishing for deep snow cover to blanket the fields. Orchardists are hoping that calm winter weather will be devoid of drying winds. And nurseryman might be wishing for winter sun on low tunnels full of potted, balled and burlaped trees and shrubs. All of us are wishing that 2012 will be weather neutral, that the rains will come when we need them, and the sun will shine at all the right times. Let's hope we have a gentle weather year in 2012.

We followed the Occupy Wall Street story last fall. Though we didn't pitch a tent in any city park, we know that agriculture in New England is part of the 99 percent. The 1 percent are the agribusiness conglomerates. They don't till our rocky soils or haul trainloads of grain, sugar, cotton or rice across our mountains. They are the 1 percent who benefit most from government programs. They are the 1 percent with the most money for lobbyists and advertising. They are the 1 percent that says, "Agriculture is big business. We have to feed the world." How can we occupy our seat at this national table? If New England farmers and fishermen and concerned citizens really do make up 99 percent, how do we become part of the conversation instead of being observers on the outside?

Hundreds of thousands of people care about New England agriculture and want it to thrive. They are ready for a talk about direct marketing, agricultural practices, conservation activities, school lunch programs and the price of milk. New England Farmers Union (NEFU) is facilitating a dialogue between these individuals and policymakers. In September, 10 NEFU members spent three days in Washington, D.C., participating in the National Farmers Union's legislative fly-in. NEFU members, along with Farmers Union members from around the country, met with members of Congress and the Obama administration and shared first-hand accounts of why it is important to have policies that support and protect small farms and fishing operations.

The NEFU members who participated - both farmers and food activists - visited 38 House and Senate offices of New England and New York Congressional members. They spoke directly with 10 senators and representatives. At every stop they talked with lawmakers about policies having to do with dairy pricing and regulations, conservation and energy programs, specialty crops and rural development. They asked members of Congress to preserve the "regional equity" provisions in conservation programs, since without those provisions the New England states' allocation of funds will decline precipitously.

In addition to educating lawmakers about specific policy, our members shared their stories. They offered perspectives that they have learned from farming, and suggested how federal policies could be friendlier to New England conditions and markets.

Here's how Tim Wennrich of Meadowstone Farm in Bethlehem, N.H., summarized his reason for participating: "Small farms are becoming increasingly important and are being creative in pushing farming technology. In a political atmosphere supportive of big agriculture, small farms could use a little more voice and a little more support. Vision is not our problem. Small, local farms are creating a food economy. Politicians always talk about creating jobs, but we farmers are doing it. This is an economy that can support itself. We just need a boost in creating infrastructure to keep it going."

Nothing beats personal connections these days. In this era where information is flowing ever-more quickly, we still need to talk to each other, tell our stories, and write policies that have real people in mind. At New England Farmers Union, we believe strong personal relationships are crucial to building a robust regional food economy. We know from experience that members of Congress listen when they hear from farmers and constituents who are affected by laws made in Washington. Lawmakers hear from paid lobbyists every day. Personal accounts from New England farmers, fishermen, nurserymen, orchardists and passionate eaters bring the issues home.

Help us increase our voice in Washington. As you reflect on the blessings of agriculture at this turning of the new year, imagine what it would be like if we had a whole busload of farmers and food activists going to Washington this spring, just in time for Farm Bill debate and hearings. NEFU can underwrite travel expenses for farmers with your help. Donate today to our Send a Farmer to Washington campaign through our website (http://newenglandfarmersunion.org/sendafarmercc.html), and help us occupy our seat at the table as we help write the 2012 Farm Bill!

Here's to a healthy new year from all of us at New England Farmers Union! May your seasonal celebrations be full of good, regionally grown and processed food, and may your farms and fisheries prosper in the year ahead.

For more information, visit www.newenglandfarmersunion.org/nfca/ online.

Annie Cheatham is executive director of New England Farmers Union (www.NewEnglandFarmersUnion.org).