By Michele Byers
When you hear “Farm Bill,” you probably think of huge corn, wheat and sugar subsidies.
Now up for re-authorization for the first time since 2008, the Farm Bill is a behemoth piece of legislation that’s been said – without exaggeration – to cover “everything we eat, wear and drive.” Not surprisingly, it impacts the environment, local economies and our public health.
But what you may not know is that every year, thousands of acres of farmland here in the nation’s most densely populated state are permanently protected through the Farm Bill. Through its Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, 172 farms, most of them small and family-owned, have been preserved across 15 counties in New Jersey.
The Farm Bill is a major funder of farmland and natural resource conservation programs in the Garden State. This is especially critical, since our small farmers don’t get the same crop and insurance subsidies received by large agribusinesses out west.
In addition to the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Farm Bill includes the Wetlands Reserve, Wildlife Habitat Incentive and Environmental Quality Incentive programs. These programs help farmers transition to organic agriculture, conserve water quality and quantity, and restore wetlands and grasslands.
Of the Farm Bill’s current spending of nearly $100 billion a year, about $4.5 billion goes toward conservation programs – but that may change. The Senate Agriculture Committee just cut conservation programs in order to reduce the federal budget deficit. There is talk of additional cuts, which would jeopardize the investment in jobs and local economies that conservation programs provide.
The Farm Bill has long been criticized for promoting factory farming and unhealthy foods. To address that problem, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, has proposed to transform the Farm Bill into a healthy food bill. Her amendment would reduce crop insurance subsidies, restore funding to nutrition programs, and redirect $500 million to provide healthy fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren.
A recent survey of American attitudes toward agriculture, the environment and the national budget found that most of us support healthy foods, conservation and small farmers.
Here are some of the findings:
• 78 percent said making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and more accessible should be a top priority in the next Farm Bill.
• 57 percent opposed cutting funding for conservation programs, saying these programs save money by preventing pollution.
• 75 percent said helping family farmers stay in business should be a top or high priority in agriculture policy and 31 percent would make it the top goal of subsidy programs.
Our nation’s Farm Bill should support farmland and natural resource conservation, healthy foods and small farmers. You can help! Call U.S. Senators and your Congressional representative at the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121. Ask them to retain the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program and other programs that help save Garden State farmland. Emphasize its benefits to our state, our local economies, our health and our quality of life.
New Jersey now has more than 2,000 preserved farms totaling nearly 197,000 acres … no small potatoes! A transformed Farm Bill can help this state we’re in preserve even more farmland in the years to come.
To learn more about the Farm Bill, go to the American Farmland Trust website at www.farmland.org or the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy website at www.iatp.org.
And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey New Jersey Conservation Foundation.