Last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $1.8-million grant to Scenic Hudson, a private regional land conservation organization in New York's Hudson River Valley, to permanently protect 10 farms, among them major suppliers to greenmarkets in one of America's fastest growing metropolitan areas. Under the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), farmers receive cash they can reinvest in their operations. In return, they relinquish the land's development rights, so it will always be available for agricultural purposes.
The fruits, vegetables, meats and other foods produced by America's small- and mid-sized farms have a major role to play in stemming the obesity epidemic and alleviating mounting concerns about food contamination and security. The food they supply is diverse, tasty, nutritiousand above all, local. With 97 percent of our agriculture based on these smaller farms, they are essential for sustaining the nation's $369-billion agricultural economy, bigger than the GDP of nearly 200 countries. Yet every year, the country loses 3 million acres of its best farmlandprimarily on family-run farmsa victim both of sprawling development and high land costs that put it out of financial reach of young farmers.
The FRPP should be a central player in protecting these farms, which actually produce more food per acre (either in tons or dollars) than their industrial-sized counterparts. Unfortunately, the existing federal Farm Bill, enacted in 2008, has allocated only $100 million per year on average for FRPP grants. This is just .02 percent of total USDA farm funding doled out each year. The lion's share of Farm Bill money goes to Midwest "factory farms" and commodities firms that are essentially middlemen. Even worse, instead of expanding or improving American agriculturewhich has the capacity to meet so much more of our dietary needsthe Farm Bill's trade clauses promote imports. That's why apples in the local supermarket are just as likely to come from Chile as a nearby orchard.
The problems of protecting farms and farmland in the Hudson Valley serves as a microcosm of challenges faced nationwide. While its orchards and fields already provide much of the produce purchased by consumers at New York City greenmarkets and restaurants, it could do so much more. The city's unmet demand for regionally produced foods approaches $600 million annually. Yet between 2002 and 2007, the most recent data, the valley suffered a 10-percent loss in farmland, in part because older farmers retired and new, young farmers couldn't pick up the slack. The FRPP funds that are allowing Scenic Hudson to protect these 10 farms in turn will enable several young farmers to purchase the land they've been renting, providing a stable base for their operations. Other farm owners are planning to use the funds to increase their productive capacity. Without the FRPP, it's unlikely these transactions could have been accomplished.
The Special Committee on Deficit Reduction currently is looking for programs to cut. The Farm Bill, which is up for renewal next year, is in its crosshairs. With America's population expected to increase 29 percent by 2025, the need to preserve fertile land on our small farms has never been greater. In light of this and the stated goal of U.S. farm policy to "foster a family farm system of agriculture," Congress should make FRPP funding sacrosanct. By living up to these words, Washington can restore fiscal responsibility and help ensure a safe, nutritious food supply for future generations.
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