Guest Post: An Alabama Farmer’s Perspective on Policies that Promote Healthy Food and Healthy Economies
April 25th, 2013
Today on Capitol Hill, farmers, business owners and community advocates shared their stories and knowledge of critical farm bill programs with Congressional staff. Sponsored by the Congressional Tri-Caucus – made up of Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) – the collaborative briefing “Policies that Promote Healthy Food and Healthy Economies,” showcased the role that diverse programs, such as those that train a new generation of farmers or expand SNAP acceptance in local businesses and farmers markets, can play in increasing access to healthy, fresh food.
This diverse array of programs is not always recognized as synergistic, but they provide real health and economic benefits for all communities. As the House and Senate prepare to take up the farm bill, it is critical for Congress to hear the real and immediate benefit of these programs from farmers, consumers, and communities around the country.
Today’s briefing was developed by the Food and Agriculture Policy Collaborative, comprised of NSAC, the Food Research Action Center, Fair Food Network, and PolicyLink. The Collaborative aims to find permanent and inclusive solutions to ending hunger, increasing access to healthy foods, strengthening local economies, and supporting family farmers.
Today’s speakers, from left to right: Lucy Nolan, End Hunger Connecticut!; Vicky Zilke, Zilke’s Vegetable Farm; Mark Bowen, EAT South; Judith Bell, Policy Link; and Wendell Pierce, Sterling Farms grocery store
Speakers included Lucy Nolan, Executive Director of End Hunger Connecticut!, Wendell Pierce, grocery store owner and actor, and Vicki Zilke, a farmer and former nurse. NSAC was represented by Alabama farmer and community educator Mark Bowen, who gave compelling remarks about the importance of federal support for beginning farmers and local food systems. The following is a transcript of his prepared remarks:
By Mark Bowen
“Thank you all in attendance for this opportunity to listen to this panel of farmers and advocates. My name is Mark Bowen. I live in Montgomery, AL and I am the Education and Outreach Coordinator, and Farm Manager for EAT South, a non-profit organization which focuses on promoting healthy lifestyles through education and sustainable food production in urban areas. Our organization is an active member of the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network or ASAN, which is a non-profit organization with a statewide reach that trains farmers how to convert to sustainable farming methods, among many other things. ASAN is also a member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
I am an urban farmer. EAT South has two urban farms, the downtown farm and the Hampstead farm, which is the farm I manage. Between both farms we have about seven acres of land. Our crops are very diversified; in other words, name it and I probably grow it. And, all our food is sustainably grown. Most of our produce sales are to our Community Supported Agriculture shareholders and what’s left is sold to local restaurants.
In Alabama, we consider ourselves an agricultural state. But over the past ten years we have seen a 29% decrease in farming. America’s food policies subsidize relatively few large farms, closing off markets and opportunities for local and small farms. This has led to a myriad of problems, including land loss and younger generations not seeking farming as a viable career. But this trend is starting to change. All over the country, communities have begun to embrace their local farmers. EAT South, ASAN and several other organizations in the state are champions of this new trend in Alabama.
The farm bill includes a number of unique programs targeted to training this new generation of farmers and ranchers so that they can become successful and supply the demand for fresh, healthy food locally and regionally. Two farm bill programs in particular have filled the need for farmer training and improved market access – the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program. Both of these programs provide a targeted investment in the development of local and regional food systems that can supply healthy food to consumers.
ASAN is working to develop the infrastructure we need to help beginning and experienced farmers thrive through funds from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. Our BFRDP grant has created the capacity for us to begin:
- Creating and disseminating research-based educational materials for beginning farmers and ranchers
- Setting up trainings throughout the state to provide one-on-one and group training for farmers, including at demonstration farms across the state. Experienced farmers at those demonstration farms have been able to receive funding for their work supporting these trainings and for acting as mentors for beginners.
- Creating food guides for three different regions of the state, which help consumers find local producers and the businesses who support them. There are close to 200 farmers in these food guides that are now connected to the people and businesses in their community.
Many of these projects are targeted towards black belt farmers – farmers from East Texas across to West Alabama. The black belt, named for its dark, fertile soil once was some of the best farmland in the US. After it was over farmed, the black belt became a concentrated area of rural poverty. We are working with black belt farmers who use good farming practices to train young beginning farmers to farm in the black belt.
ASAN and our partners can educate as many farmers as we’d like to, but developing markets for them is another obstacle. This is complex: on one hand the demand in Alabama for fresh, healthy local food is through the roof. But the state still lacks the infrastructure to allow Alabama farmers to get good food to people. Right now 95% of all organic food consumed in Alabama comes from out of state. I am sure my friend Richard Dean at Gold Branch farm loves being one of the only organic farmers in Montgomery’s curbside market, and selling out every Saturday morning hours before the market closes. But there aren’t enough farmers like him in Alabama. Even further, Alabama residents only consume about 3-5% of the food that is produced in the state, according to a study done by the North AL Food Bank. So there is a market – and room for growth.
That’s where the Farmers Market Promotion Program – another program currently stranded without funding – comes in. In 2011 EAT South received federal funding through the Farmers Market Promotion Program. The funding from this grant has helped EAT South invest in the Curbside Market, Montgomery’s largest farmer’s market. The grant has enabled us to advertise the market to a wider audience and will allow us to build seating areas where people can enjoy their food, which the market currently does not have. Improvements like these at the market have increased attendance, which means farmers earn more at market each week. The programs work hand in hand.
We are counting on programs like BFRDP and FMPP to help us catalyze the development of infrastructure – like training, marketing, and distribution – that will get fresh food grown by Alabama farmers to Alabama consumers.
So let’s say we start to make some progress here: our beginning farmers are starting to feel competent in their farming skills and they are gaining access to local and regional markets. And we’ve effectively created infrastructure that helps farmers succeed and increases access to fresh, healthy local food across the state.
And then the money disappears.
That is what we’re facing right now with programs like BFRDP and FMPP being stranded without funding. Despite funding for both programs in the versions of the farm bill that passed out of the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee last year, the farm bill extension that was included in the New Year “fiscal cliff” deal failed to fund these programs. This means groups like ours can’t continue to develop the systems we are putting in place. This means we will witness, firsthand, more farmers struggling to succeed, more farmland and jobs lost, and our food system becoming more centralized.
Local food movements come from a humble place of being attached to the people in your community. We want to see our communities as whole. Farmers should be a part of the makeup of a community’s wider region. Just like doctors, teachers, mechanics and other professions exist to sustain a community, local farmers should be in the equation. We have been cut out of the picture, but we are fighting our way back in. The fact is a trend has begun over the past two decades. People are buying local and sustainably grown foods. Farmers are responding, and creating jobs and wealth for local communities. And it is the job of Congress to support and protect the interests of the communities they represent.
The small, targeted investments Congress makes in the development of local and regional food systems today will pay off many times over down the line in stronger communities, more good jobs, and healthier people. As it debates the 2013 Farm Bill, Congress should provide funding for BFRDP, FMPP, and other unique programs that help build the infrastructure for a healthier food system. We on this panel represent the interests of the communities we farm and organize in. Now we need you to represent us.
All of the presenters here today are part of a whole. Beginning and experienced farmers and ranchers need training and an array of local and regional markets to sell their products – including retail stores like Sterling Farms and farmers’ markets like the Curbside Market. SNAP and initiatives like the double bucks program both feed families and help family farms thrive, which in turn stimulates the local economy. All of these combine to improve and sustain the health of communities across the country. So no one program is more important than the other. This is a total package that needs your support. We’re counting on you to help us grow a better future for our farms and communities.”
AL farmer Mark Bowen (far right) engages with briefing participants and answers audience questions