WV farm economy is growing, needs a strong farm bill
By Courtney Boyd // July 2, 2018 This year a very important bill is up for passage at our nation’s capital that will set food and farm priorities for the nation. Commonly referred to as the Farm Bill, it touches all aspects of the food and agriculture economy. From SNAP spending for low resource Americans, to subsidies for large scale commodity crops, crop insurance and conservation, to programs that support the growth of local food systems, this quiet bill plays a very important role in the lives of many people. The decisions that are made this year will affect us for the next five years.
Nationwide we have heard a lot lately about the great improvements made toward a recovered economy. But what does that mean for West Virginia? Do we feel that these statistics represent our reality, in unemployment rates, income and the overall well being that a thriving and fair economy can create?
As of April 2018, West Virginia is second in the nation for unemployment rates, according to open source data found through Statistica. We also consistently have the lowest workforce participation rate of any state, signaling that our population is aging, disabled following years of industrial work or struggling to find work opportunities.The truth is that West Virginia has not fully recovered from the 2008 recession.
One of our best paths forward is the fostering of a robust food and farm system. Historically small farms supported our communities and helped to shape rural economies, alongside industry. Farmers here have been hard at work for years starting new businesses, expanding their existing enterprises and circulating essential dollars throughout the state. Farmers and supporting agencies and organizations have worked to create new and innovative business ideas, expand farm to table movements, grow opportunity around aggregation and distribution of farm products, and increase accessibility to farm fresh foods.
According to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, the state is ranked 37th in population and 41st in geographical size, but we ranked 12th in apple production, 17th in peach production, 13th in turkey production, and 17th in broiler chicken production. West Virginia also has one of the highest concentrations of small to medium sized family farms of any state in the country, with 95% of our farms being family owned and operated, according to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. These characteristics are something to be proud of and show that we can easily forge a new path in the state that supports and connects rural areas with urban, both statewide and regionally, through a thriving farm economy.
As we build our local and regional food and farm economies, the last thing we need is to have dollars pulled from the agriculture economy. Every food dollar spent here within our local economies, including SNAP dollars, goes to support farmers, food businesses, and rural grocery stores, all of which rely on these funds.
The US House of Representatives recently put forth a draft of the Farm Bill that would gut many important aspects and leave rural populations by the wayside. This deeply flawed draft made sharp cuts to the SNAP program, conservation and environmental programs and programs designed to develop local and regional food systems. Local and regional food system programs have been at work in West Virginia for just a handful of years but we’re already seeing results!
Fortunately we haven’t been completely abandoned just yet, as the Senate delivered a diametrically alternative version of the farm bill that would take a bipartisan approach to supporting small farmers and struggling families in WV and across the country. We would love to see the legislature make innovative moves in supportings small and medium sized farmers, clean up the flaws within the commodity program, further environmental efforts and offer solutions to workforce development needs in our state. Our hope is that there is an outright rejection of the version of the bill proposed by the House, or anything closely resembling it. Let’s call on our representatives to ensure passage of the Senate version of the bill that supports small farms and rural economies. Courtney Boyd is the Policy and Placemaking Coordinator at the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition.