Local farmers, Congressman Welch share farm priorities

MIDDLEBURY — “It’s a mess in Washington,” Congressman Peter Welch told a group of Champlain Valley specialty crop farmers who gathered in Middlebury last week to share their wish lists for the 2018 farm bill. But, despite the dysfunction in much of the nation’s capital,  the Vermont Democrat said there is still hope because there tends to be bipartisan support to “get a decent farm bill.”
Key to building that support, he said, is first gathering specific concerns and recommendations from constituents.
“A lot of my colleagues, Republican and Democrat, will be having similar meetings with folks like you in their communities,” Welch said. “The purpose of this meeting today is to get input from you as to what I should be doing on the farm bill.”
The around 15 participants gathered, fittingly, in the processing area at Happy Valley Orchard on Monday morning.
One topic Welch wished to discuss was support for local foods, which, he said, is an important topic for Congressional representatives from around the country.
He described a “significant movement in Congress to try to broaden out the farm bill to support local agriculture.” And he noted the growing awareness nationwide of the multiple positive impacts local sustainable agriculture brings to local communities. Chief among these benefits is healthier food, Welch said, but there are other benefits.
“There’s a growing sense of awareness that (local, sustainable agriculture) is good for the environment,” he said. “It keeps land open. People just love the ‘collateral consequences’ of your work and husbandry. And there’s a growing appreciation for the economic impact that the work you do has because that money stays locally.”
Area farmers in attendance included three apple growers — host Stan Pratt and Shoreham orchardists Bill Suhr and Scott Douglas — and vegetable growers Becky Maden of Orwell’s Singing Cedars Farmstead and Spencer Blackwell of Middlebury’s Elmer Farm. Grower/vintners from South Hero’s Snow Farm Vineyard and Shelburne Vineyard found Ken Albert also took part. Other participants came from the Agency of Agriculture, University of Vermont Extension and Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association.
Topics they raised included:
•  How to make crop insurance programs more effectively meet the needs of different kinds of growers.
•  The importance of Farm Service Agency loans to farmers.
•  Increased and more reliable funding for university extension services, which conduct agricultural research and provide technical support to farmers. Terry Bradshaw, UVM Extension’s apple expert, described Extension funding as “crumbling” for some time.
•  Funding to support the statewide network of specialized weather stations that are critical to apple growers being able to get real-time disease and insect information.
•  Support for farmers implementing new food safety regulations.
Also discussed were how to balance consumer demand for cheap food, which often means food produced by large-scale agribusiness, with the benefits of sustainable, locally grown food, produced on a smaller scale.
Shelburne Vineyard’s Albert brought to Welch’s attention the absurdity of a regulation that allows him to ship 375-milliliter but not 200ml bottles of ice wine out of state.
Farm labor — though not an area of federal legislation covered by farm bills — came up repeatedly. Participants discussed the difficulties of finding and keeping local labor, the likely difficulty for farmers that would be brought about by an increase in the minimum wage, and the challenges inherent in using the federal H2A visa program, which brings the Jamaican apple pickers who harvest most of Vermont’s apples. The labor needs and challenges varied considerably depending on the crop being grown.
Congress typically passes a farm bill every five years. The current farm bill expires Sept. 30, 2018. It covers 12 areas, including commodity crops (such as dairy products and the “big five” of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton); so-called “specialty crops,” which in Vermont covers things like vegetables, berries, tree fruits like apples, maple syrup, hops, and any crops not considered “commodities”; crop insurance; natural resources conservation; research on food and farming; energy; rural development; international agricultural trade; and nutrition.
Welch held a similar meeting with county dairy farmers last spring. Representatives from Sen. Leahy’s and Sen. Sanders’ offices are conducting similar listening sessions around the state.
As in previous negotiations, a major challenge working toward the 2018 farm bill will be allocating a fairer share of resources for local, sustainable agriculture.
“Big farm commodity crops have dominated the farm bill. It’s like: ‘What’s good for Cargill is good for America.’ Well, I think most people here would dispute that,” Welch said. “There’s a tug-of-war over how resources should be divided between large commodity crops and more diversified farms aimed at supporting local agriculture.”
Welch emphasized repeatedly that this tug of war “doesn’t split along party lines because you go to any part of the country and there’s enormous interest in local organic agriculture.”
To emphasize this point Welch told a humorous story involving food safety regulations, cheese ripening and a moment of close collaboration with Wisconsin Congressman and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
His experience in negotiating past farm bills has shown that success comes from listening to constituents and then building coalitions in Washington.
“What’s happened for me in the past with the farm bill is that if I can start creating a coalition of people who are advocating for a set number of things it will help us. We can have enormous influence on what the ultimate shape of the farm bill is. That’s what we’re talking about.”
Welch urged constituents to keep in touch as work continues on the 2018 farm bill.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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