During one of the wettest and coldest springs in Seattle-area history, I found myself stuck on two questions: What are we willing to pay for food? How can we better support farming as both a profession and a public service?
Now, as we approach the start of fall, feed and hay costs have jumped exponentially, and while gas prices have somewhat normalized, the impact of higher expenses is still being felt across farmers’ fields. There has always been risk in farming, but how much of that should fall on the producer, especially the first-generation, small-scale farmer who has faced many hurdles already, including access to land and equipment, just to even begin?
Over the past 20 years, I have been encouraged by the local food movement in the Pacific Northwest. From interning on other people’s farms to graduate school based at a Washington State University research farm, to running my own seasonal farm business in the Skagit Valley, I continue to be inspired by the work and resiliency of farmers across all scales, but especially the newbie trying to figure it out and start from scratch.
I have seen new farmers markets, food delivery businesses, and food distribution hubs form and flourish. Classes and majors related to food studies have become mainstays in high schools and college. Local food-based businesses continue to garner praise and adoration for their uniqueness and quality. Our farm has benefitted from some of the current federal programs aimed at supporting ideas and innovation in agriculture, like Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the USDA Value-Added Producer Grant. However, after the last three years of a global pandemic, supply chain issues and increasingly erratic weather patterns — most likely a result of climate change — we need to think strategically about how to maintain and build on this progress as a community, as a region and as a country.
As parents of two small children, my husband and I are still recovering from almost two years of limited child care. Navigating the pace of our farm (which stayed consistent through the pandemic) in addition to managing our family’s safety and well-being has taken its toll on our bodies and spirits. And I know we are not alone. Let’s not let 2022 be the year of the Big Burnout for small farm families.
The federal 2023 Farm Bill is right around the corner, and this is a time to be specific about how and why we support agriculture. I want to preserve the important knowledge-base that has been established in this region for years to come. I do believe we have a wide range of engaged shoppers and chefs who are loyal to their farms and farmers and willing to pay higher prices for what we do. However, the conversation needs to evolve beyond raising prices to something much more nuanced and impactful, including policies and programs that lift farmers up, remove some of the burden and risk, and address food access in a meaningful way.
Small farms are small businesses, but they are so much more, and navigating the uncertainties of weather and social change is everyone’s responsibility, eaters and growers alike. The American Farmland Trust has a full list of 2023 Farm Bill Policy Recommendations with ideas on how to directly help small and new farmers, such as expanding current programs that support soil health as well as increasing access to loans and other forms of credit needed to access land and equipment. As an example, a program like EQIP has only been able to fund 30% of applicants over the past decade.
However, more dramatic renovations to sections of the Farm Bill that support large-scale farms, like Commodities (Title 1) and Crop Insurance (Title 11), could redirect funds toward novel programs for historically marginalized, first-generation and women-owned farms, like child care and medical insurance, that are critical but absent from farm policy discussions.
A clear and direct path within our educational and social systems is needed, paving the way to success in agriculture regardless of anyone’s background or upbringing. If we have learned anything from the sacrifices of the past two years, it’s that a healthy, local food system is essential to our survival into the future and regardless of where you live, urban or rural, it is our collective opportunity to figure this out together.