Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Farm Bill discussion in Middletown

Originally posted on Haddam Green, by John Friedlander.

To the so-called “average” Connecticut citizen, it might have seemed incongruous that four out of five of our U.S. Congressional Representatives attended a Farm Forum at Wesleyan’s beautiful Beckham Hall Monday afternoon, July 7.

(Only the 4th District’s Chris Shays (R) was not present.)

This was the first time so many CT Reps had been in the same room in the home district to talk farm policy in anyone’s memory. But the capacity crowd, made up of about 200 farmers, their friends and agriculture advocates, was intent on the conversation.

Tilt: Reset: Huh?

For those of us who don’t track farm policy on a daily basis – which would be most of us – here are a few facts to consider.

• Connecticut is losing farmland faster than any other state in the nation.

• Connecticut imports more of its food supply than any other state.

• Connecticut moves almost all of its food supply into and around the state by truck, since we have virtually no meaningful freight rail capacity.

• Rising oil prices are forcing price hikes in all consumer categories and painful market adjustments in every sector of our economy.

• 3rd District Representative Rosa DeLauro (D) chairs the powerful House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, which in May administered the bicameral veto-proof passage of the massive $307 billion Farm Bill (318 to 106 in the House, 81 to 15 in the Senate).

The first part of Monday’s Farm Forum was all about heaping praise on DeLauro, who was, as usual, affably all-business as she absorbed the praise for her efforts from John Larson (D 1st,in his fifth term), freshman Chris Murphy (D 5th), and freshman Joe Courtney (D 2nd). DeLauro also stated the reason for her motivation by quoting John Kennedy: “Farmers are the only businesspeople who have to buy everything at retail, sell everything at wholesale and pay the freight both ways.”

Act II was the de rigueur recitation of the various alphabet-soup programs enabled or expanded by the bill, performed by a stellar collection of USDA and other agency figures instrumental in helping area farmers take advantage of federal programs to keep their farms afloat in troubled times.

Read the Middletown Press article for more on this aspect of the event.

Act III proved to be the most interesting part of the event, as attendees gave their reps the home field perspective. While the Congressional team may have thought energy prices were the Big Issue, immigration topped the agenda for many in attendance.

Speaker after speaker raised the issue of immigration reform.

Bob Heffernan, Executive Director of the Connecticut Green Industries Council (a coalition of the Connecticut Florists Association, Connecticut Greenhouse Growers Association, Connecticut Nursery & Landscape Association): “The biggest single problem affecting us and all of agriculture, is the … broken immigration system, and the use of foreign workers at our farms. This is a number one priority for us. The green industry has about 48,000 workers across the state… . We had about 5,000 jobs go unfilled this year, even as tough as the economy was. Of these 48,000 workers, we think there could be as many as 7,000 undocumented or illegal workers. So if Social Security overnight sent letters to all those farms and said these people are illegal, you could see the huge effect on our business. Parents in CT don’t raise their kids to do farm work, it’s just not the way the state is, we’re mostly a urban, suburban, well educated high income state. We really need a fix that works for agriculture.”

East Canaan farmer Ben Freund: “We don’t have time to do conservation unless we get immigration reform. There will be no cows milked on [many] farms the day after they start enforcing immigration [laws]. It’s an issue that is much bigger than what we can describe to you. Our farms are dependent on immigrant labor. The ratios [Bob Heffernan] gave [of 7,000 immigrant workers out of 48,000 green industry workers] is very, very low in terms of the numbers of workers that are actually doing the work on our farms. I am getting sick and tired of working in an economy illegally. It has been years and years and years, and I implore you as Congress to straighten this out. It is sickening for me to write those paychecks and each one of them knowing that they could come back and now they’re not going to be chasing Mexicans down through the cornfields, they’re going to be chasing me and my brother down through the cornfields because that’s where the responsibility lies. So I implore you to straighten this issue out.” (Big applause.)

DeLauro was candid in explaining that there is understanding of the need for immigration reform, but no solution will be accomplished before the end of the Bush presidency.

Chris Murphy made the point that immigration and healthcare are issues that will be on the ballot in November, and that it’s important for farmers and the general public to speak on the topic in ways that raise the visibility of the nature of the problems and the need for solutions.

Joe Courtney drove home the point. “What’s driving this debate is the talk shows, the radio shows, the misinformation that exists surrounding the issue of immigration. Your description about it being a broken system is very obvious to people who rely on immigrant labor to get their goods to market. What’s needed is for people to participate in that discussion and that debate. Frankly I don’t think there’s a more credible voice in America than farmers, to talk about the fact that this country has to make a decision about whether or not it wants to have food on the table at an affordable price. My experience at town hall meetings and on radio shows is that people don’t have a clue about what a crisis this is for the agriculture sector in CT and across the country. If we did have a greater understanding, we’d be in a better position to move forward toward a smart, balanced, reasonable solution to this problem, rather than the shouting match that exists surrounding this issue.”

Another key issue was raised by Jennifer McTiernan-H., Executive Director of CitySeed, a New Haven-based not-for-profit which operates several farmers’ markets and advocates for fresh local food supplies in urban areas. “As more people buy and enjoy local food, and have Farmers’ Cow milk in their refrigerator we are building a very powerful base of advocates who can stand up and support the needs of farmers in CT and through the Farm Bill nationally. This is a moment that we have to grow the local food movement. As food safety becomes more of an issue and as energy prices rise, there are more and more reasons to for people to buy local food. In CT, we are actually getting to a point where farmers are being asked to supply things that they’re out of, where there is an initial feeling of limited supply.”

Though several other issues were raised relating to somewhat more technical aspects of the Farm Bill, this local reporter left the event with a short list of key thoughts:

• Pressures on Connecticut farmers are unprecedented. Rising fuel prices, taxes, costs of labor, fertilizer and the pressure of real estate development top the list.

• The lack of workable immigration law means a major portion of the labor supply (some say up to 50%) may become unavailable at any time due to unpredictable law enforcement, and that farmers may become liable for legal costs in some circumstances.

• Because we are losing farmland at a rapid pace, and importing most of the food we eat, Connecticut residents are extremely vulnerable to the side effects of an interruption in the supply of oil.

• The growing demand for locally-grown food is partly indicated by the number of towns working to set up their own farmers’ markets. But the dwindling number of remaining farmers are already stretched thin and cannot afford to attend every market.

The bottom line seems to be a near perfect storm of factors indicating the need for major change in our relationship to food and the food marketplace. There are many aspects of this issue that relate in unexpected ways, including immigration (farms depend on immigrant labor), health insurance (many farmers can’t afford health insurance), education (kids need to learn food comes from farms, not stores, and that farming is important work), land use (should we be building more big houses on former farms, or replanting that land with food?), open space acquisition (allowing land to remain undeveloped may help preserve greenways which help neighboring land be more fruitful) and many others.

The time to get involved is now, before the crisis is made worse by a more serious energy supply interruption, and people begin to go hungry at a greater rate.

No farms, no food

Food not grass


Farmland preservation in Connecticut

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