The farm bill started off as a New Deal program in the 1930s to supply emergency aid to farmers who were economically hard hit because of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Over the last 85 years it’s grown and morphed into a huge omnibus piece of federal legislation that impacts everything we eat in this country.
To give you an idea of how big the farm bill is – the U.S. spent about 500 billion dollars on it over the last five years.
If you eat, the farm bill affects you. It affects all of us - first and foremost because it’s our tax dollars that pay for it and a lot of that money is given out to farmers, including local farmers, for lots of different things like loans and insurance, for example.
“On the island, they help fund things like if you want to fence your property which is a big a very, very big expense. I know that that comes from the USDA - whether that’s part loan part grant - I don’t know, but I do know that is something on the island people definitely utilize,” said Richard Andre, a local farmer in West Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard.
The United States Department of Agriculture through the farm bill can also help farmers build greenhouses, pay for upfront planting costs in the spring for example, purchase equipment, even land. There are also incentives for farmers to actively conserve soil and protect water.
Farm bill policies affect real things and real people on the ground.
Richard said that when he first started out farming, he took a course in Wareham that was funded by the USDA through the farm bill. It was about teaching people how to be small farmers.
“Being a farmer is not just raising food, it’s also being an accountant, a mechanic, a salesperson, as well as raising the crops. The USDA course went into all of those aspects of helping people do a business plan, who to reach out to technically - to the USDA or MDAR - to find out where to get the resources you needed.”
The way some of the farm bill money works is that it flows through the USDA and out to individual states. In Massachusetts, it goes to the Department of Agricultural Resources also known as MDAR.
“So that’s how I started in a sense. The USDA extension office out of Wareham played a role in helping me shape my original business plan. I’ve done it about 11 years and my big focus was pasture-raised poultry,” Richard said.
Beginning farmers don’t always realize that there’s more to it than business planning or planting.
“Being a farmer is all these multiple disciplines in one, as well as raising the food. The technical expertise of raising pasture raised chickens is one thing, but then also a business plan, or setting up a LLC, or the marketing part of it as well," Richard said.
He added, “So they helped with that and they helped me understand that most successful farms, at least commercially successful farms, usually have a keystone piece of their business. So they helped in that and focused my mind.”
Courses like these are also good opportunities to network with other beginning farmers. Richard said it was a good chance to share his ideas and listen to others because it’s a forum. He believed the course had about 30 people in it.
A lot of people probably don’t think about how the farm bill affects them because they’re not farmers. But if you look a little closer you’ll see everything about food is affected by the farm bill - for example, Richard can sell his chickens at a farmers’ market and those are organizations can get funding through the farm bill too.
“I think there’s a bit of an awareness issue; people are just not aware. I’m sure that a lot of people who are established farmers are aware, but maybe some people who are thinking about getting in to some form of agriculture – whether it’s homesteading or small-scale farming like I do, or a little bit larger scale farming like maybe others on the island - it’s not heavily publicized.”
Big agricultural states that get a lot of the money like Nebraska, California, Iowa and Texas grow highly subsidized commodity crops like corn, soy, wheat and rice, even cotton. Farmers in Massachusetts grow mostly fruits and vegetables and we still have some small family-owned dairies.
“Although Massachusetts is not a ‘big ag’ state. We don’t receive a lot of the money from the ag bill as a proportion of all the other states, and especially some of the big agricultural states, but the money that they do receive goes a long way in helping local communities," Richard said. "So it was really helpful.”