Home Grown

Small farm advocates hope to spark an aid revolution that will put more farms and better food closer to home in Maryland and elsewhere

May 20, 2007|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

For decades, the specter of the infamously powerful farm lobby has loomed over an ongoing debate about the future of American agriculture.

While the farms that supply the food we eat have grown larger, more efficient and more distant from the consumers they serve, smaller family farms closer to home have found it more difficult to compete and easier to sell their land for residential development and other uses.

Most federal agricultural aid tends to go to the larger producers, while the smaller farms struggle.

But now, a homegrown revolution is brewing, one that unites various factions that have long protested what they say is an uneven distribution of farm subsidies and insufficient support for crop diversity and for environmentally friendly and energy-saving production.

The insurgents are diverse: environmentalists, energy conservationists, food safety and local-food advocates, the health-conscious and small farmers. Many share a desire to improve quality of life through healthier living, cleaner water and more open spaces, and they are pulling together to advance their complementary causes.

This new "healthy farms" alliance hopes to use its collective influence to divert significant amounts of federal farm aid to smaller farms closer to cities, using an array of arguments, including the considerable energy expense of moving food to distant markets, the dangers of infection from food produced in industrial settings, and the environmental and social benefits of preserving open space and limiting suburban sprawl.

Congress is scheduled to review the federal farm aid bill this year, and these advocates of change believe they have the numbers and the momentum to reshape it.

The arguments of the healthy-farming advocates are harmonizing with the goals of others pursuing health and social change. Some see a chance to combat obesity in America, and particularly in children, by strengthening local farm-to-cafeteria programs and coupons for those on fixed or lower incomes. For the environmentalists intent on cleaning up waters polluted by agricultural runoff - such as the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment spilling into the Chesapeake Bay - there are questions of conserving land and water and preserving open space.

For smaller, family farmers - more the norm in Maryland - there's a question of having the support necessary to be more environmentally friendly, healthier and more accessible to a broader array of local consumers.

"This is a transition time for agriculture to be much more accountable to local people, create economic viability for the farmer, and help restore water quality in the Chesapeake," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican who has introduced and co-sponsored a number of bills aimed at changing federal farm policy to these ends. Unlike in 2002, when the farm aid law was last revisited, Gilchrest said, "the issue now is transition to sustainable agriculture, organic agriculture, value-added agriculture, healthy-diet agriculture."

Many share Gilchrest's view. A "broad, loose-knit alliance ... is working together in ways that we've never seen," said Scott Faber, campaign director for Environmental Defense, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks solutions to urgent environmental problems. "For the first time, energy, health, environment, trade, fiscal conservatives ... international development organizations and leaders are all working together to develop farm and food policies that help more farmers, that help meet the health and energy needs of more consumers, that help address hunger, that meet our trade obligations, and that boost world prosperity, and that help the environment."

That coalition is a necessity in the face of an "80-year head start" enjoyed by the relatively few beneficiaries of current farm policies, Faber said. These large-scale farmers have consolidated gains made since the Great Depression and dominate agriculture committees in Congress with heavy lobbying and campaign contributions.

If the insurgent alliance succeeds, federal aid and more friendly marketing rules could make a difference for farmers like Anne Pomykala, whose organic Koinonia Farm in Stevenson can trace its existence back more than 50 years, as the first of its kind in Maryland, Pomykala said.

Last week, Pomykala wove her way through rows of budding basil, pulling up thistles already blocking the smaller leaves from the morning sun. Farm workers Amadeo Leon and Nicolas Montiel picked bunches of chives, snipping off the stems before slipping the remaining leaves into a clear plastic container. The herbs, one of several cooking plants Pomykala grows, were ready for distribution to farm clients, which include stores such as Wegmans, WholeFoods and the Giant supply warehouse in Jessup.

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