Vibrant farms and rural communities
In the 1930s, when modern farm policy was created, millions of people depended upon farming and ranching for their livelihoods. Most farms were relatively small operations that fed people locally, or perhaps regionally, and they produced a variety of crops and livestock for the consumption of the family that owned the land and for the benefit of its surrounding community.
Fast forward 80 years or so, and American agriculture is profoundly different. Although the vast majority of farms are still family-owned operations, many of them are multimillion-dollar businesses encompassing thousands of acres and are growing food that is shipped around the country and around the world. These farms are highly efficient and highly productive, but they have profoundly impacted the rural communities that surround them. These communities have seen their populations drop dramatically as farms grow ever larger, and the average age of their residents climbs as children graduate from school and, unable to find good jobs in their hometowns, leave to find work in cities. The average age of farmers continues to climb as well: In 2007, when the last farm bill was written, the average farmer was 58 years old; in 1945, the average farmer was 39 years old. And the increasing size and economic clout of large farms has driven up the price of farmland in many parts of the country, making it difficult for beginning farmers to enter the business unless they are in a position to inherit an existing farm.
However, the past decade has seen a transformation in the way we view our food and has provided an opportunity for agricultural communities to rebuild their economies, care for the land, and attract a new generation of farmers. The growing demand for "local" food has driven explosive growth in farmers' markets and other "direct to consumer" marketing by smaller farmers. The new interest in local, organic and seasonal food, coupled with public health concerns about obesity, particularly among our children and youth, and the recognition that in many communities in our country access to fresh and healthy food is limited, have combined to generate new opportunities and markets for farmers and rural economies.
Since 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been directing more funds toward the development of a new generation of farmers, and their efforts are beginning to bear fruit. Small farms, operated by younger and more diverse farmers, including women and minorities, are increasing in all parts of the country. Many of these farms are selling directly to consumers through farmers' markets or other Community Supported Agriculture projects, but most lack access to the processing and distribution infrastructure, which tends to cater to the largest farms. For these new farms to grow and to meet the growing demand for healthy, seasonal and local food, a regional food infrastructure (consisting of small slaughterhouses and packing plants rooted in rural communities, catering to small and mid-size farms and employing rural workers) must be rebuilt.
Through the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative, the USDA has used programs funded by the 2008 farm bill to provide start-up funding for regional food hubs and small-scale (and even mobile) slaughterhouses. These programs are growing rural economies and generating rural jobs and have the potential to do more if they are funded by Congress and allowed to continue. In addition, programs in the conservation title of the farm bill are often well suited to small farming operations and have the potential to help them grow their income as well as protect land and water in rural communities for future generations.