Farm-to-school programs are doing more than just providing students with fresh, local food in their cafeterias; many are also offering hands-on experience growing food.
Photos by Vern Grubinger.
Looking to the future, I see a good news/bad news story for commercial vegetable growers in the Northeast. The good news: increasing awareness that consumption of fresh produce is good for people's health, expanding farm-to-school programs aimed at improving children's dietary habits, booming direct markets, and statewide planning efforts to support vibrant local and regional food systems. The bad news: uncertainty about the impacts of new federal food safety legislation, ongoing challenges to secure reliable farm labor, and the steady loss of productive farmland. Long-term strategies are needed to address these issues in order to encourage the viability of vegetable farms of all sizes.
Growing consumer awareness
From the USDA's Know Your Farmer program to health insurance provider newsletters, the message is being sent out that people need to eat more fresh produce. As statistics mount about rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related disease, there will likely be even more encouragement for consumers to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables as time goes on. That's good, because per-capita consumption levels have leveled off in the past few years after a slow but steady rise over the previous few decades.
Farm to school
In 1997, there were less than 10 farm-to-school programs; today there are well over 2,000. A recent report on these programs nationwide found that they've contributed positively to students' attitudes and behaviors toward local, healthy food, and that they've promoted healthier dietary choices including increased consumption of fruits and vegetables (Bearing Fruit: Farm to School Program Evaluation Resources and Recommendations, by A. Joshi and A. M. Azuma, Occidental College, 2009). In many communities I'm familiar with, school boards, food service personnel and growers are working together to develop ways to conveniently and affordably provide even more fresh, local food to students. Farm-to-school programs have the potential to increase future demand for vegetables as these students grow into adults. Visit www.farmtoschool.org to find out about programs in your state.
Direct market growth
Most growers are well-aware that direct marketing is important to vegetable farms in the Northeast. The 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture found that all six New England States plus New Jersey make up seven of the top 10 states in direct-to-consumer food marketing as a share of total agricultural sales. From 1997 to 2007, direct-market sales of agricultural goods increased by 110 percent in New England and 74 percent in the mid-Atlantic states, while overall agricultural sales rose by only 41 percent and 33 percent, respectively. Of course, direct sales are still a small part of overall agricultural output, accounting for just 3.9 percent of total sales in the New England and 1.7 percent in the mid-Atlantic. However, direct markets offer a key opportunity for growers to connect with consumers, and that can have an effect on their overall buying habits. Direct markets are also an important opportunity for new farmers as they seek to establish their businesses.
Local food system efforts
Having farms nearby not only provides us with direct access to fresh, healthy food, it promotes long-term food security and maintains open space for the benefit of wildlife, recreation and tourism. Plus, it turns out that farms are a critical part of local food systems that generate billions of dollars and employ thousands of people, not just by raising farm products, but by processing them to add value, distributing and retailing them, and selling and servicing related equipment. Food, from farm to plate, is really big business. New Hampshire, Michigan, Vermont and other states have recently worked on food system studies to capture the data and make recommendations about how to have an even stronger food system that benefits our local economies.
Food safety legislation
After nearly two years of political wrangling, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was passed by Congress and signed into law last January. Many vegetable farms will be required to comply with GAPs (good agricultural practices) or similar regulations that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will issue. The bill exempts growers who market at least 50 percent of their product directly to consumers so long as these growers' gross annual sales are less than $500,000 and the sales take place in-state or within 275 miles of the farm. State or local food safety programs are supposed to oversee these farms instead. Until the FDA rules are finalized, many of the details and what they will mean to farmers in terms of cost and management are not yet clear. While everyone supports the goal of a safe food supply, the rules will have to be practical and affordable for our relatively small farms in the Northeast, otherwise larger farms far away will have an advantage, to the detriment of stronger local food systems
For many vegetable farms in our region, the H-2A program has been a critical source of reliable and efficient labor, given the reality that there is a shortage of local people willing and able to perform the demanding work associated with planting, weeding, pruning and harvesting horticultural crops. A lot of farms I visit have had the same H-2A workers returning from Jamaica to work each growing season, some of them for 20 years or more. This program seemed to be working well, to the benefit of both parties. However, in February of last year, the Department of Labor issued the Final Rule for the H-2A agriculture worker program, creating changes for agriculture employers in order to "strengthen worker protection for both U.S. and foreign workers and ensures overall H-2A program integrity." These changes add to farmers' cost and management time to take part in this program, and create some apparently unnecessary frustrations. Hopefully regulators will listen to the legitimate concerns of growers and work with them to make it easier to access a reliable labor pool going forward.
Loss of farmland
As the old saying goes, "they aren't making any more of it." And, despite vigorous efforts at land conservation in many states, competition with development poses a serious threat to the long-term viability of vegetable production, indeed to all types of agriculture. In the 25 years from 1982 to 2007, Pennsylvania lost 723,000 acres of farmland; New York lost 449,000 acres, and New Jersey lost 279,000 acres (see www.farmlandinfo.org). Nationwide, in just five years, from 2002 and 2007, over 4 million acres of agricultural land were converted to developed uses nationwide; that's nearly the size of Massachusetts. Since 78 percent of vegetable production takes place in "urban influenced" counties, the pressure on these farms is especially high. Clearly, this is not a sustainable path if we hope to have a viable food system for future generations.
Vegetable farms produce an essential component of a healthy diet, and they are a key part of vibrant local food systems. Many different constituencies recognize their importance and support their viability. However, they face serious challenges. These can be overcome with some long-term planning, political will and common sense.
The author is vegetable and berry specialist with University of Vermont Extension based at the Brattleboro office.