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COMMENTARY
New England Farmers Are the 99%

By Annie Cheatham, Executive Director, New England Farmers Union

Added January 30, 2012. We followed the Occupy Wall Street story last fall.  Though we didn’t pitch a tent in any city park, we know that agriculture in New England is not part of the 1%.  The 1% are the agribusiness conglomerates.  They don’t till our rocky soils or haul trainloads of grain, sugar, cotton or rice across our mountains. They don’t have small, organic dairy herds that graze our rocky slopes.  They are the 1% who benefit most from government programs.  They are the 1% with the most money for lobbyists and advertising.  They are the 1% that says, “Agriculture is big business.  We have to feed the world.” How can we occupy our seat at this national table?  If New England farmers and their supporters make up 99%, how do we become part of the conversation, instead of being observers on the outside?

Hundreds of thousands of people care about New England agriculture and want it to thrive.  They are ready for a talk about direct marketing, agricultural practices, conservation activities, school lunch programs and the price of milk. New England Farmers Union (NEFU) is facilitating a dialogue between these individuals and policymakers. In September, 10 NEFU members spent three days in Washington, D.C., participating in the National Farmers Union’s legislative fly-in. NEFU members, along with Farmers Union members from around the country, met with members of Congress and the Obama administration and shared first-hand accounts of why it is important to have policies that support and protect small farms and fishing operations.

The NEFU members who participated — both farmers and food activists — visited 38 House and Senate offices of New England and New York Congressional members. They spoke directly with 10 senators and representatives. At every stop they talked with lawmakers about policies having to do with dairy pricing and regulations, conservation and energy programs, specialty crops, and rural development. They asked members of Congress to preserve the “regional equity” provisions in conservation programs, since without those provisions New England states’ allocation of funds will decline precipitously.

In addition to educating lawmakers about specific policy, our members shared their stories. They offered perspectives that they have learned from farming, and suggested how federal policies could be friendlier to New England conditions and markets.

Here’s how Tim Wennrich of Meadowstone Farm in Bethlehem, N.H., summarized his reason for participating: “Small farms are becoming increasingly important and are being creative in pushing farming technology. In a political atmosphere supportive of big agriculture, small farms could use a little more voice and a little more support. Vision is not our problem. Small, local farms are creating a food economy. Politicians always talk about creating jobs, but we farmers are doing it. This is an economy that can support itself. We just need a boost in creating infrastructure to keep it going.”

Nothing beats personal connections these days. In this era where information is flowing ever-more quickly, we still need to talk to each other, tell our stories, and write policies that have real people in mind.  At New England Farmers Union, we believe strong personal relationships are crucial to building a robust regional food economy. We know from experience that members of Congress listen when they hear from farmers and constituents who are affected by laws made in Washington. Lawmakers hear from paid lobbyists every day. Personal accounts from New England farmers, fishermen, nurserymen, orchardists and passionate eaters bring the issues home. 

Help us increase our voice in Washington. As you reflect on the blessings of agriculture at this turning of the new year, imagine what it would be like if we had a whole busload of farmers and food activists going to Washington this spring – just in time for Farm Bill debates. NEFU can underwrite travel expenses for farmers with your help. Donate today to our Send a Farmer to Washington campaign through our website (http://newenglandfarmersunion.org/sendafarmercc.html). And help us occupy our seat at the table as we help write the 2012 Farm Bill!

Here’s to a healthy New Year from all of us at New England Farmers Union! May your seasonal celebrations be full of good, regionally grown and processed food, and may your farms prosper in the year ahead. 

Annie Cheatham, Executive Director of New England Farmers Union, was most recently President of NEFU (2009-2011).  Previous to NEFU, she was Executive Director of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) in western Massachusetts.  She grew up in rural North Carolina and now lives in Conway, MA, where she and her partner have an extensive garden for year round consumption.