Farmers, ranchers, and advocates from across the country gathered yesterday, February 2, 2016, to speak with members of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research about their experiences in direct farmer to consumer marketing, farm to institution marketing, and other local food strategies. The subcommittee convened six expert witnesses, with support from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the Farmers Market Coalition, to provide insight on the benefits of and challenges to direct and intermediated market operations–one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture today.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL-13) set the tone for the hearing by emphasizing the important role direct marketing has come to have in agriculture and the increased need for Congress to caucus with farmers, ranchers, and producers who are engaging in direct marketing activities.
“As producers seek to develop new marketing channels for their products, it is important for the subcommittee to get their perspective on the opportunities they see, the challenges they encounter, and what programs can help facilitate further development of these alternative marketing channels,” remarked Davis.
Subcommittee panelists came from a diverse range of industries, from cattle ranching to garden education, and included:
- Kurt Tonnemaker, Co-Owner, Tonnemaker Hill Farm, Royal City, WA
- Andrew Heck, Garden Educator, Generation Healthy Kids, Springfield, IL
- Cris Coffin, Policy Director, Land for Good, Keene, NH
- Michael McCloskey, Co-Founder, Fair Oaks Farms, IN
- John McMicken, CEO, Evergreen Cooperative Corporation, Cleveland, OH
- Josh Eilers, Owner, Ranger Cattle, Austin, TX
The witnesses shared their experiences in direct marketing with subcommittee members, and emphasized the importance of making a personal connection with consumers.
“The value of direct marketing to consumer education is especially important where farms are surrounded by non farming neighbors,” said Cris Coffin, who works and farms in Western Massachusetts, which is surrounded by more urban communities. “Every direct sale is an opportunity to educate neighbor and consumer about farming and builds support for agriculture,” Coffin said.
Kurt Tonnemaker, who along with his brother Kole owns and operates Tonnemaker Hill Farm and Orchards in rural Washington, spoke to subcommittee members about how the transition to direct marketing helped save their family farm. Tonnemaker also emphasized the important role that SNAP/EBT sales play in supporting the ongoing success of their operations.
John McMicken, CEO of Evergreen Cooperative Corporation, added that urban farms and agriculture play a big role in connecting consumers to their food. He highlighted for subcommittee members how Evergreen’s 3.25 acre commercial greenhouse, Green City Growers, has not only provided meaningful employment opportunities in a formerly disinvested area of Cleveland, but also how it has brought the community together and given them a sense of pride in their neighborhood.
Farmers and ranchers engage in direct sales through a variety of methods including farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), and direct sales to restaurants and retail establishments. Demand for direct to consumer sales is high–in 2012 144,530 farms sold $1.3 billion in fresh products through direct marketing, and farmers’ markets have shot up by over 180 percent since 2006.
Despite strong demand, direct market sales are not without their challenges. Kurt Tonnemaker lamented the cost and complexity of food safety requirements, expressing concern to the subcommittee about how implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act would impact his operation. Kurt cited heavy paperwork and requirements to manage potential wildlife access to the farm as particularly onerous burdens. Kurt’s comments reinforce NSAC’s position that the FDA needs to provide clear and appropriate guidance, outreach, and training about the implementation of FSMA for diversified farms.
Josh Eliers, a beginning farmer, Army veteran, and owner of Ranger Cattle, added that despite his successes with the Farmer-Veteran Coalition Homegrown by Heroes label program, he still encounters significant barriers to entering direct market sales through his local farmers’ markets. Eliers also pointed out that small operations face considerable challenges getting their products into USDA-inspected processing facilities because so few are available locally–a problem that was echoed by several others on the panel.
“Direct marketing beef is no easy task,” said Eliers. “If you were to rank the challenges I’ve had in my life, including serving in Afghanistan, direct marketing beef would be at a whole ‘nother level!”
Members in attendance to hear the testimony and engage in questioning the panel included Chairman Rodney Davis (R-IL-13), Ranking Member Suzan DelBene (D-WA-1), Ted Yoho (R-FL-3), Dan Newhouse (R-WA-4), Jim McGovern (D-MA-2), Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH-2), and Gwen Graham (D-FL-2).
Looking Ahead to Child Nutrition and Farm Bills
The hearing was, in many ways, the beginning of policy discussions that will inform the development of the next federal Farm Bill. It also represented a shifting of priorities in a climate where farmers, consumers and policymakers are more aware than ever about the importance of local and regional food systems to sustainable agriculture.
We saw the effect of this shifting perspective clearly in the increased support for local, regional, and sustainable agriculture in the 2014 Farm Bill. Testimonies from this week’s hearing underscored the programs and policies from the 2014 bill that they felt needed more support, as well as those that needed adjustment, in 2018.
Cris Coffin cautioned the subcommittee that with the current population of farmers is preparing to age out of the industry, bold steps need to be taken to encourage a new generation to join up.
“With 1/3 of our farmers looking to retire in the next 30 years, that is a lot of land that could transition out of farming unless we take the appropriate steps,” said Coffin. Coffin highlighted the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which helps protect productive lands from non-agricultural development, as critical to supporting the next generation of young farmers.
Andy Heck, Garden Coordinator with Generation Healthy Kids and a former direct market farmer with 10+years under his belt, focused on the importance of nutrition education and the growing demand for farm to school programs. Heck highlighted the need for Congress to pass a Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill this year that supports nutrition education and includes increased funding for the Farm to School Grant Program.
If the testimonies heard in Tuesday’s hearing are any indication, there is good reason to believe that the next Farm Bill will see much-needed additional attention paid toward supporting local and regional food systems, increasing healthy food access, and supporting young, beginning, and disadvantaged farmers.
See additional images from the hearing here