How Congress Should Celebrate National Farmers Market Week

August 7, 2012 | 10:27 am
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

This week is National Farmers Market Week, and—no surprise to anyone who knows me—I marked the occasion over the weekend by visiting two farmers markets in and around my neighborhood in Washington, DC. The 14th and U Farmers Market and the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM market are among the nearly 8,000 markets now operating in communities across the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which released the results of its annual farmers market census on Friday.

The USDA data show steady growth of farmers markets over the past two decades, with the number of markets jumping nearly 10 percent just since 2011.

As UCS showed last year, farmers markets not only encourage healthy eating by providing sources of fresh produce and other mostly unprocessed foods, but they also can create new jobs and spur economic development in rural and urban communities alike. As I reported in November, economists at the USDA confirmed that farmers who sell produce locally create more jobs than those who don’t, and estimated that local food systems now account for $4.8 billion in annual sales.

Smart policies could boost local food systems even more

But those numbers could be even bigger. In the spring, my colleague Jeff O’Hara documented how public policies that favor production of livestock feed and processed food ingredients—especially federal subsidized crop insurance and credit programs—have prevented U.S. farmers from growing more fruits and vegetables for direct sale. Jeff’s report called on Congress to change the rules and level the playing field for local food farmers.

With members of Congress home now for their annual August recess, let’s recap their progress this summer toward a Farm Bill that invests in local food systems and healthy eating:

In the Senate, a bill passed on a bipartisan vote in late June included funding for a variety of rural development programs, including a program that would support local and regional food systems and new farmers, and one that would make it easier for organic farmers to get crop insurance. The Senate bill also would require recipients of crop and revenue insurance to take basic measures to protect soil and water resources.

Over in the House in July, however, things got grim. While the House bill did maintain some funding for farmers market promotion, it also slashed more than $16 billion in food assistance programs for the poor; weakened insurance programs for diversified, organic, and healthy food farmers; eliminated programs that assist organic farmers with certification; and deepened cuts to programs that help farmers protect soil, air, and water resources. The combined damage led one commentator to call the bill a “full-on disaster.”

It remains to be seen whether the House and Senate will be able to work things out before September 30, when the current Farm Bill expires.

I’ll talk more about ways the Farm Bill could help farmers—in particular, with drought conditions—later this week.

For now, I find that peaches make everything seem a little better, so go get yourself some of these before they’re gone: