Last week, in a surprise vote that raised concerns about the future of food and farming in America, the US House of Representatives voted down the 2013 farm bill.
The vote came after heated disagreement over cuts to various programs in the farm bill, a large and complicated piece of legislation that guides funding for policies relating to food and farming, and broadly affects environmental, agricultural and nutritional programs across the country. Specifically, the controversy centered on food stamps (officially, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), which provide nutritional assistance to some 10 percent of New Mexico's population. Although the Senate, in its own version of the bill, had already proposed some budget reductions, House Republicans wanted much deeper cuts. Democrats—and even some Republicans—didn’t go for it.
“I am deeply disappointed that at a difficult economic time when families are struggling to put food on the table…House Republicans brought a Farm Bill up for a vote that makes drastic cuts to vital food nutrition programs and fails to provide the help our farmers and ranchers need,” US Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM—who voted against the bill—said in a statement.
Yet while Washington debates complex funding questions, many local farmers are struggling to make ends meet. And while the farm bill was originally passed to help sustain Depression-era farmers, few will see relief in this year’s legislation.
Across the country, roughly 91 percent of farms are small-scale—yet during a recent visit to the Santa Fe Farmers Market, SFR found that few local farmers knew about the farm bill vote.
“There is very little in farm bills that affects [small farmers],” says Donna Lockridge, co-owner of South Maintain Dairy, a small New Mexico goat farm. Meanwhile, many small-scale farmers are being forced out of business due to the drought, the personal funds needed to keep the farm afloat and the cost of feed; Lockridge says she’ll be forced to close her dairy at the end of this year.
Today, nutritional program funding accounts for roughly 80 percent of the farm bill’s budget. In the House version, just 11 percent would go to the types of farm commodity and conservation programs that can help small farmers—and many of those programs are now on the chopping block. And according to the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research and advocacy organization, 10 percent of New Mexico’s farms—mostly large-scale corn, wheat, cotton and sorghum producers—receive 80 percent of the bill’s farm subsidies.
To make matters worse, few small farmers have the time or resources to lobby against budget cuts—instead, they’re busy “planting, harvesting and trying to get stuff to grow,” says Lockridge, who’s also the vice president of the Santa Fe Farmers Market board. “They don’t have the money or time” to apply for federal aid, she adds. “They don’t even bother...there’s money for big agro, but not for the little guys.”
Luján notes that there are in fact “many programs in the farm bill that are designed to help small farmers.” But these programs account for a small fraction of the funding directed at farms, and many are facing consolidation and cuts.
Ed Lobaugh of Old Windmill Dairy, a 100-goat farm in Estancia, says he has tried to apply for federal grants, but “the USDA made it so difficult.” At one point, he says, they lost his paperwork. Now, he no longer bothers. He mentions the same challenges as Lockridge—drought, rising feed costs, shrinking demand. But it’s not federal aid that keeps Lobaugh’s 30-acre farm afloat. Instead, it’s collaboration with another farm, assistance from La Montañita Coop, and—somewhat surprisingly—competition.
“We need competition,” he says, pointing to a spot in the Farmers Market space where another dairy used to have a booth. He motions toward Lockridge’s booth. “They’re our competition—they’re closing at the end of the year.” Lobaugh says his sales have declined since fewer dairies are present at the market.
Yet according to Andrew Stoddard, Luján's spokesman, even dairies that do receive federal aid are in a tough spot until Congress passes a farm bill and “implement[s] critical reforms.” Other programs “will continue to operate under the 2008 farm bill’s enacted levels,” Stoddard says, adding that proposed cuts won’t take effect until a new bill is approved.
But the bureaucracy has left many farmers disillusioned.
“I don’t think most people these days expect anything to come out of Washington that will help them—farmer or not,” Lockridge says.
Heather Harrell, a beekeeper who sells her honey at the Farmers Market and also serves on the board, said she hadn’t heard about the farm bill vote, and asked SFR what it means. She speaks of immediate concerns: surviving the drought, the loss of bees.
“Every year, we suffer losses,” she says. “It’s hard not to be doom and gloom.”