Guest Commentary: Investing in localized agriculture and empowering our family farms
At a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing, I had the opportunity to question U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. I had a couple of questions prepared for him, but I ended up just focusing in on one issue because of how shocking his response was: When I asked him about what we can do to support the small and mid-sized farms that are so vital to our upstate economy and rural way of life, he was utterly dismissive, writing off these farms by pointing to economies of scale and effectively shrugging his shoulders.
Our district is home to more than 5,000 farms and more than 8,000 farm operations, and it’s the third-most rural Congressional district held by a Democrat and the eighth-most rural overall. In 10 of the 11 counties I represent, the number of operating dairy farms has diminished. I cannot simply chock this trend up to economies of scale. Our dairy farmers are being forced to sell their farms and shut their doors due to low prices, market concentration and a serious lack of local infrastructure.
So what I wanted to do in this hearing with Secretary Perdue was have a real conversation about how we can empower our small farms, whose priorities are too often overshadowed in Washington.
I’m particularly focused on investing in localized infrastructure and technology for small farms based on conversations I had during my first in-district work period, where I toured farms and met with local farmers to hear their ideas. At Don’s Dairy Supply, a local dairy equipment provider in Delaware County, the owners showed me processing containers they’re outfitting where local dairy farms can process milk on-site, instead of sending their milk to a processor that cuts significantly into their profits. Local processing facilities like this will ultimately save small dairy operations money and make our rural economies more self-sustaining.
At Frost Valley Farm, manager Bari Zeiger told me about the innovative sustainable farming techniques she’s using to maximize output at the farm year-round, especially in the face of climate change. I talked with Bari about the opportunities we have in front of us: young farmers in particular are interested in sustainable farming practices, and consumers are increasingly interested in buying local. There are tremendous opportunities for growth if we empower these farms by investing in the necessary infrastructure for them to market their products throughout the state of New York and even beyond.
At roundtables I’ve held with farmers, folks discussed ways we can ensure that the Farm Bill is implemented with an eye toward the impact on small farms. The programs that support young and beginning farmers, as well as those that help connect farmers with local farmers markets, are critical to the success of farms in Upstate New York. We also need to tailor programs to ensure they work for our economy; we need to make sure small, family-owned operations have access to financing and micro loans to maintain and grow their operations. A couple thousand dollars, for example, could allow a farm in our region to make a vital equipment purchase that pays for itself many times over. This is one of the reasons my office is building out a grants program to help connect local farmers with access to capital through loans and grants. And we’ve got to get rid of unnecessary regulations, like ones that bar farmers from selling whole milk to schools. I’m glad to co-sponsor legislation that would change this. I’m also focused on additional ways we can incentivize local institutions to buy fruits, vegetables, and other products from family farms here.
There’s a whole lot more Congress can do to invest in localized infrastructure and support small and mid-sized farms. But as Secretary Perdue demonstrated all too clearly, the conversation in Washington right now revolves around big corporate farms instead of the family farms that are the lifeblood of our communities here. I invited Secretary Perdue to come up to our region and visit farms with me so we can have a real conversation about how to invest locally. I’m proud to be a voice for small farms in Congress, and I will never let up in speaking up for what we need here in upstate New York.
Congressman Antonio Delgado is the representative for New York’s 19th Congressional District.