Small farmers could use a range of regulatory change to increase the competitiveness of their operations.
Several small-scale farmers from Maryland and Virginia gave their opinions on what they’d like to see changed in a Nov. 16 webinar presented by Future Harvest CASA.
Small farms gained valuable exposure this spring when the pandemic disrupted the food supply chain. Some large farms plowed under vegetables that lost their food service market, and some grocery stores ran short on meat when packing plants closed because of worker illness.
“It was shocking, at least to me, to witness how vulnerable our global supply system is,” said Dena Leibman, executive director of Future Harvest CASA.
“Where did consumers turn? They turned to their local farmers in droves,” she said.
Small farmers, though, face labor shortages, ill-suited infrastructure and the uncertainty of a “new normal” as they struggle to keep afloat, Leibman said.
Will Morrow, who owned a farm in Emmitsburg, Maryland, for 16 years, said large farmers benefit the most from federal subsidies and are best equipped to handle paperwork and regulations.
Small farmers don’t want carte blanche, but the “amount of oversight needs to be tailored to real risk,” he said.
Morrow wants increased funding for federal and state cost-share programs to help small farmers and urged farmers to starting gearing up now for the next Farm Bill. The current law expires in 2023.
Thelonius Cook, of Mighty Thundercloud Edible Forest in Birdsnest, Virginia, wants to grow local farms’ share of school and prison food contracts.
While Delmarva acreage has shifted to grain production, Cook wants to renew the region’s focus on crops like tomatoes, peaches and strawberries.
For small livestock producers, slaughterhouse capacity is a real concern.
“We were booking dates for October 2021 in July this year,” said M.K. Barnett, who sells about 30 pigs plus other livestock each year in Middletown, Maryland.
To sell beef, pork, goat and lamb, farmers must have their animals processed at USDA-inspected facilities.
Under certain conditions, poultry can be processed on farm. These birds can’t be sold out of state, which can put the big, lucrative Washington, D.C., market out of reach, Barnett said.
She’d like to see USDA relax its rules on interstate poultry sales.
Emma Jagoz is worried about keeping the customers who turned to small farms and CSAs this year.
With the growing season over, farmers may need to educate consumers about seasonality and answer questions like “I anticipated tomatoes in November. Why don’t you have them?” said Jagoz, of Moon Valley Farm in Woodsboro, Maryland.
Jagoz also said there are not enough lawyers who understand agriculture. She wants to expand incubator farms and tools to help farmers find trained labor.
Renard Turner said that, as a Black person, he has had difficulty getting financing to buy land.
Black people own less farmland now than they did in 1935. To grow Black-owned farming operations, regulatory reforms are important, but “social and cultural change is where the shift needs to be made,” said Turner, who runs Vanguard Ranch in Gordonsville, Virginia.