I am a big fan of supporting local agriculture. Small local farms provide what I consider to be a healthier alternative to so-called factory farms. As much as possible, when I put something on my table, I prefer to know where it comes from.
It is better for the environment and I also get added satisfaction knowing that I am doing business with a neighbor while contributing to the local economy. I buy organic when practical. These are personal choices that I have made; I am not making recommendations for others.
In its recent survey, the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board asked the question: what is the greatest threat to local farms? It offered a selection of multiple-choice answers, but absent among the choices is what I consider to be the biggest threat — and that is regulation. I don’t mean to pick on the Farmland Protection Board; I know their heart is in the right place. It’s an awareness issue.
If you want to know what the greatest threat to farmers is, ask a farmer. On the home page of the West Virginia Farm Bureau (wvfarm.org) is a half-hour video of a speech given by Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, at its annual meeting in Nashville in January. I recommend you watch it. Stallman identifies many threats to farmers, particularly small family farmers.
Estate taxes are an issue. They can and do force family farmers to sell the farm instead of passing it on to the next generation. Another issue is child labor laws. Last year the U.S. Department of Labor proposed new regulations putting restrictions on what jobs young people could do on farms. While proponents claimed that these new regulations were aimed at the big guys, the outcry from small family farmers persuaded regulators to reverse course — for now.
Two issues noted by Stallman affect us right here in the Eastern Panhandle and both are related to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan. According to him, the Environmental Pprotection Agency “claims the power to set federal limits on nutrients on each and every farmer regardless of cost or feasibility.” He asserts that the Food and Drug Administration has overstepped its authority and that it is the states involved that have jurisdiction.
According to local farmers I have talked to, the WIP will have a substantial adverse impact on local farming; one angry farmer I spoke with went so far as to say that he believed the goal is to eliminate all animal agriculture in the entire Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
The other issue related to the Chesapeake Bay involved the Alts, owners of the Eight is Enough poultry farm in Hardy County. In November 2011, the EPA determined that rainwater falling on their property constituted commercial discharge and required a Clean Water Act permit, threatening fines of up to $37,500 per day. This constituted a new interpretation of existing point source pollution regulations. Rainwater has not previously been defined as discharge from operations. The EPA contended that dust and feathers that could be washed away by rainwater could wind up in the Mudlick Run, some 200 yards away. Lois Alt filed suit against the EPA challenging its ruling. The state Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau Federation were granted intervener status over the objections of the EPA. However, in what the Farm Bureau described as a “stunning move,” the EPA withdrew its order this past December.
According to a recent Associated Press article, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that the United States lost 11,630 farms and total U.S. farmland shrank by 3 million acres last year. (One local farmer I spoke with opined that agriculture in the U.S. is going the way of manufacturing; it is moving overseas, largely due to regulation.) The AP article goes on to say that “while the overall number of farms declined nationally, the number of the biggest farms, defined as those with $500,000 or more in sales, jumped by more than 8.6 percent.”
Ironically, regulation tends to give a competitive advantage to the big guy over the little guy. By all accounts, small farmers in the Eastern Panhandle are generally good stewards of the environment – the Alts even won an award for environmental stewardship. If we want small family farms to survive, we need to stop making the market place toxic for them. And regarding the regulators, is it my imagination, or do they seem to prefer going after the little guy? After all, the big guys are better able to fight back.
I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said simply: No Farms – No Food.
Hey, everybody’s got to eat.