“It’s literally a growing part of the state’s economy.”
This is what Ken Ayars, Chief of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Agriculture Division, said of the agricultural industry yesterday.
The US Census of Agriculture reports that the number of farms in Rhode Island grew from 858 to 1,219 between 2002 and 2007, a 42 percent increase.
“That’s remarkable,” said Congressman James Langevin yesterday at a gathering of leaders in the agricultural industry.
“I’m pleased to see that increase in the number of farms in Rhode Island and their success is integral in revitalizing our economy,” he said in a statement.
The growing numbers of farms in Rhode Island represents the highest increase in New England and is 10 times the national average.
Ayars said the growth is attributable to health conscious consumers.
“The public wants to know where their food is coming from,” he said. “It’s not just a rural phenomenon, it’s an urban phenomenon.”
Yesterday’s gathering gave experts in the field, as well as local farmers and agricultural workers the opportunity to voice their opinions, questions and concerns about the Farm Bill, which is renewed every five years and sets the national standards for farm and food policy. The bill is set for renewal in 2012.
“It’s important to hear from local farmers and the agriculture community,” said Langevin. “I want to ensure local farmers’ voices are heard.”
The previous legislation including funding for those who grow specialty crops, like those in Rhode Island.
“In Rhode Island these are smaller family owned enterprises that serve the local community,” said Langevin, noting that they do not produce crops for the rest of the nation.
The bill also includes assistance to local dairy farmers, who were affected negatively by the state’s prohibition of raw milk sales in the 1950’s, an issue that went overlooked for decades.
Langevin said he recognizes the importance of the agricultural industry on a federal and state level.
“Ten percent of Rhode Island is designated as farmland,” said Langevin. “Farms contribute a great deal to the economy.” Studies have found that each dollar in agricultural sales creates an additional dollar invested in the state’s economy. In Rhode Island, that would mean the $66 million in agricultural sales would translate into $66 million reinvested into the economy.
“I believe this new legislation… will ensure that the Rhode Island farming industry will regain its full potential,” said Langevin.
But those at yesterday’s gathering had issues to share with the Congressman. There were 20 people on the panel and at least 30 in the audience at the meeting in the Warwick Library.
Al Bettencourt from the RI Farm Bureau said farmers often have problems with depredation to their crops caused by wildlife.
He sited the Canadian goose as an issue on his farm, explaining that he may not bring hunters onto his land to hunt the geese. Instead, his employees must remove and “destroy” the birds. He feels there should be a better solution to the problem.
He also brought up an issue that affects farmers who gross more than $1 million annually. He explained that these farmers may not receive federal aid and funding.
“I know farmers who gross a million per year and lose money,” he said. “It should not be how much they gross, it should be how much they net.”
James Hines from the RI Dairy Farms Cooperative and Rhody Fresh, said that some dairy farmers lose $100 per cow per year.
“These are the highest highs and lowest lows we’ve ever had,” he said.
Sandi Barden of the Barden Family Orchard agreed, saying that high taxes and costs make it difficult for local farmers to effectively compete in the farming industry.
Another factor that makes business difficult, said Barden, is the H-2A program. She explained that through this program, which allows a visa to non-domestic employees for seasonal agricultural work, employers must first seek domestic workers.
This step, she said, makes it harder to find workers.
“It’s a very seasonal business,” said Barden. “We need a lot of help for a very short period of time.”
She said people often cannot or will not leave their jobs to work a seasonal position. Jamaican workers come up and stay.
“American workers stay for two weeks and say, ‘I’m not getting paid enough’ or ‘I’m going to another job,’” she said.
Barden said in New Hampshire seasonal agriculture workers are employed at the ski slopes in the winter. She suggested a similar plan be employed in Rhode Island.
Ayars said the Farm Bill is not just about agriculture, it’s about programs like SNAP and WIC, which are directly dependent on local farmers.
Katherine Brown from Southside Community Land Trust, said the bill is important to maintain the relationship between those in such supplemental programs and local farmers.
“It’s a win-win,” she said. “Limited resource families get access to fresh foods and farmers can make a living.”
Maria Cimini echoed Brown, saying such programs play a crucial part in the state’s economy.
“Over $200 million is spent annually [in the state] in the SNAP program,” she said.
Along with the SNAP partnership, local farmers are also tied into the school lunch program, and Rhode Island is the only state in US in which each school district serves some locally grown foods.
Things unique to Rhode Island must be paid attention to, said the experts. Those at yesterday’s meeting agreed that the Farm Bill, albeit federal, must understand Rhode Island’s needs as a state.
“In the past, the Farm Bill reflected the priorities of the mid-west, not New England,” said Ayars.
Dave Wallace of the RI Turfgrass Foundation used his farm as an example. Sod farms are recognized as farms on a state level, but not on a national level. He said this issue could one day lead to problems when it comes to farmland allocation. He said if his farm grows potatoes one day down the road, that’s fine, “But once it starts growing raised ranches, it’s done.”
“We don’t need Washington to make a rule that says ‘We do it this way,’ and it has nothing to do with Rhode Island,” said Dick Went of the RI Association of Conservation Districts.
Ayars hopes the bill will help to yield a more successful agricultural system within the state.
“One that works, is sustainable and keeps money in the economy,” he said.