State guts program for small farmers - 'It's just a shame to lose something that worked'
Wade Bennett is a popular man at the Columbia City Farmers Market in Seattle's South End.
As the weekly Wednesday event reaches its final hour, his stand is crowded with buyers and his vegetable baskets are almost empty. The sweet lettuce mix is quickly disappearing, the Japanese odoriko tomatoes are picked over and the Asian pure pear cider is going fast on a hot day.
But despite his popularity at markets across the state, Bennett is part of a small, independent farming community in the Pacific Northwest that is struggling to compete, and survive.
He is also one of many small farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates angry over the state Department of Agriculture's recent decision to cut the budget of its Small Farm and Direct Marketing Program by 75 percent.
The program has provided small farmers alternatives to competing with wholesale grocers and large-scale growers by developing direct-marketing strategies and creating processing facilities to help increase small farmers' profits. Direct marketing allows growers to sell directly to the public, earning 100 percent revenue from each sale.
In 2002, the program's $75,000 annual budget generated about $550,000 in new sales at 75 farmers markets across the state, according to Zachary Lyons, Washington State Farmers Market Association executive director. Program administrators say it has helped more than 6,500 farmers, market organizers and others.
In Washington state, 87 percent of farms are considered small, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A small farm is defined as one that produces less than $250,000 gross annual sales and one in which the labor and management are provided by the farmer and/or the farmer's family.
"This is a very hard business to make a living in," said Bennett, who also serves as a board member for the program. "Small farmers can sell the finest, freshest produce in the world, but we can't produce in large-enough quantities to sell to large grocers. ...
William Brookreson, state Department of Agriculture deputy director, acknowledges the program's success, but says the department had few options when it came time to make cuts. The department was ordered to cut 10 percent of its general fund budget -- $1.26 million -- as part of the last legislative session.
"We do it reluctantly," Brookreson said.
For many local farmers, direct marketing has become the difference between losing and keeping their farms. Bennett believes it will be "the final savior" of small farms like his.
Pat Labine, owner of Oyster Bay Farm in Olympia, is one of many farmers who have benefited from the program's outreach efforts.
In 1999, the state Department of Agriculture made direct sales of poultry on small farms illegal. In response, the program organized a statewide forum to discuss barriers facing small farmers.
The forum catalyzed growers, Labine said, and they successfully lobbied for a bill to get farmers who sell fewer than 1,000 birds a year exempted from the poultry law.
"That push got us organized to go about achieving change," Labine said.
With the new budget cuts, program advocates are concerned about how small, local agriculture will be able to stay on its feet in an increasingly competitive, global market.
"It seemed like insanity to me to cut a program that was truly addressing the needs of small farmers," said Chris Curtis, Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance director and a program board member.
In its first year, the program obtained $3.6 million in federal, state and local resources, including $450,000 in grants.
The money was put toward creation of a handbook outlining government regulations for farmers, a USDA-inspected mobile slaughter unit that allows farmers to sell meat directly to the public, and grants to start development efforts, including community-supported agriculture programs and three new farmers markets across the state.
The Magnolia Farmers Market, run by the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, is one of the new markets that opened last month. It is expected to generate more than $300,000 in sales this year, Curtis said.
"It's a really tiny investment for really strong dollar benefits to farmers," she said.
Public demand for locally grown agriculture continues to increase, as illustrated by the rapid growth in the number of farmers markets -- a primary sales outlet for the state's small growers.
From 2000 to 2003, the number of member markets in the Washington State Farmers Market Association increased by 15 to 85, with a revenue increase of more than $6 million over the same period.
"As people become more aware of personal health issues, environmental quality issues, food security and the desire for preserving the landscape around us, they are more and more paying attention to the importance of the small family farm," said Leslie Zenz, program manager.
With such widespread support, sustainable farming advocates wonder why the program received the deepest cuts of any within the Department of Agriculture.
Brookreson said his department had no choice.
"The issue gets to be, do you make cuts in certain areas, or bleed everybody in every area?" he said. "We made the choice to try to take it in big chunks, so we didn't leave all the programs dysfunctional."
For Lyons, the economics of the decision don't add up.
"Direct marketing for farmers is the fastest-growing part of the agricultural industry," he said. "... It's local people spending local dollars on local farms, and local farmers are going to put it right back into the local economy. You've got this engine that's actually helping the money to stay local."
Brookreson hopes the department will find enough money to keep the program going, but obtaining grant money without state matching funds will be difficult, Zenz said.
"As of right now, we have enough grant funding to support the program until July of next year. After that, it is more unclear," she said.
"We can't help but feel like we're going backwards in terms of support," said Bonnie Rice, director of the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, one of the organizations that lobbied for the establishment of the program.
"When you look at the growth and public demand for locally grown products, and that it returns a bigger share to farmers, and the success it has had in helping with small farm viability, we think this is the wrong direction for the Department of Agriculture to be going in. It's going to have a very large impact on the ability of the program to carry out its mission."
That mission had been successful, Bennett said.
"This program actually makes a difference. ... It's just a shame to lose something that worked," he said.
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