New England Farmers Union’s sixth annual convention, Gearing Up for Success, drew roughly 60 members of the farming community when it met on Nov. 6-8 at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord, New Hampshire. Attendees heard from national, regional, state, and local agricultural leaders on subjects such as federal agricultural policy, food safety, local and regional food systems, and climate change. Members also voted on a new Policy Book, setting policy priorities for 2016.

Vision from Granite State Leaders

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster of the 2nd Congressional District of New Hampshire serves on the House Agriculture Committee and said she’s seen the ground shifting around local food. As the first New England member of that committee in scores of years, she said she was proud to see a 5 percent growth rate among New Hampshire farmers.

She said she’s worked with farmers markets in the state to help them go from seasonal selling to year-round sales. Farmers markets’ accepting SNAP benefits is an overall win in terms of access to healthy food for low income residents and creating a market for farmers. She said she’s also gratified to see craft breweries taking off.

“It’s healthy and more meaningful to have a connection to food and drink,” she said, pointing to resurgence in hard cider as complementing local brews and food.

“The inside aisles of the supermarket [where processed foods are usually kept] are collapsing onto themselves and the outside aisles [with local produce, meat, and dairy] are just jammed, and we’re asking more and more, ‘Do you carry this kind of yogurt and this kind of cheese?'” Kuster said. “New Hampshire residents in the most rural towns know their arugula now. People had forgotten what food is.”

Lorraine Merrill, commissioner of New Hampshire’s Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food, told attendees it’s important to work together as a region. A longtime dairy farmer, she described challenges to farmers, including farming in a population center where drivers of farm vehicles “risk life and limb” on congested roadways, changing market demands, and friction between residents and farmers.

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH); Roger Noonan, President New England Farmers Union; Andrew Bahrenburg and Andrew Stander of Rural Vermont

National policy perspective

National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson updated members on issues pertaining to the national organization, including Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL), climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

NFU has been fighting for COOL for many years, and the latest compromise, a voluntary labeling measure introduced by Sens. John Hoeven (R-ND) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), has NFU’s support.

“As producers, we’re pretty proud of what we do,” Johnson said. Labeling meat products with the “Made in the USA” label helps farmers and ranchers to differentiate their products, he said – and helps consumers, who, surveys say, want to know where their food comes from.

For many years, NFU has been in favor of mitigating climate change, Johnson said. The organization’s promotion of the Renewable Fuel Standard has been part of that effort.

Johnson also walked members through NFU’s opposition to TPP, saying past trade deals that promised job creation had not borne fruit, and to the contrary, contributed to job losses. A lack of enforcement on currency manipulation cements NFU’s position against the TPP.

“This is not fair trade,” Johnson said.

Workable food safety rules in New England

What’s next for farmers faced with new food safety rules? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Michael Taylor kicked off a heavy-hitting panel addressing the Food Safety Modernization Act, an overhaul of the nation’s food safety system.

Taylor gave a synopsis of the evolution of the soon-to-be-released final rules, which were shaped by input from New England farmers, many of whom responded to calls to action by New England Farmers Union and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). Rules that originally would have added onerous record-keeping and financial burdens to small and mid-sized farms have seen changes that have made the regulations more workable. Taylor, responding to pressure from New England legislators, visited four New England towns to hear from farmers.

“We got an earful on that trip,” he said. “It had a very direct impact on the rule.”

Taylor also urged members to advocate for funds to be allocated for education and outreach so farmers can implement new practices and be in compliance with the new rules.

“We can’t pretend to create a whole new food safety system without funding,” he said.

The USDA’s Elanor Starmer discussed ways her department could support farmers as they work to meet FSMA’s stipulations. Sophia Kruszewski of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), of which New England Farmers Union is a member, spoke about concerns farmers had about FSMA, and how NSAC is poised to advocate for implementation that is fair for farmers.

“Food safety outreach remains uncertain on FSMA,” she said, “which means there’s more opportunities for farmer voices to make a difference.”

Focused on supporting the movement

Supporting the local food movement brings a host of benefits for communities, including the stimulation of the local economy, access to healthy food, connecting consumers with agriculture, preserving farmland and creating demand for new farmers. It’s no wonder then that the USDA now devotes resources to supporting local.

“This is an amazing time for local food,” said Starmer, during a panel on accessing local and regional food systems. Starmer who directs the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) initiative at the USDA, walked attendees through the federal programs available through the USDA that support local food systems.

On the regional level, Farm to Institution New England (FINE)’s Cris Coffin, lately of American Farmland Trust and recently of Land for Good, said there is a big push to get more New England-grown food into institutions. FINE is one of several organizations behind the New England Food Vision to get 50 percent of food grown in the region by 2060, and we are seeing progress toward that goal, Coffin said.

“Fifty percent of food served in New England is served in institutions,” she said, noting that the institutional market has warmed significantly to procurement from local farms.

The New Hampshire Food Alliance’s Erin Allgood described efforts in the Granite State to coordinate local food purchasing and said the group is working toward policy that is friendly to the agriculture community.

Tying it all together was Erbin Crowell, vice president of the New England Farmers Union and executive director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association. Crowell described co-operatives as a way for farmers to retain ownership that’s rooted locally, and shared a slide showing how many co-ops already exist throughout the region.

“There are a lot of co-ops in New England. We have a lot of shared power. This is one of the best tools we have to focus on local and regional food systems,” he said.

Climate a hot topic

Climate change poses significant challenges for farmers, according to David Hollinger of the US Forest Service’s Northeast Climate Hub in a panel on the subject. According to data, we’re seeing more unusual combinations of spring and summer rainfall happening more often. The Northeast is seeing an increase in intense storms, and storms are lingering longer. Temperatures are also in general getting warmer here. That could be good news for some, but bad news for others.

“Climate change is fundamental to my business,” said New England Farmers Union President Roger Noonan, “and is a priority for National Farmers Union.”

Setting New England Farmers Union policy

As part of New England Farmers Union’s annual convention, members discuss, debate and vote on what policies to work toward in the coming year.

This year, the policy committee put forth eight changes to the 45-page Policy Book, which were all accepted by the membership. Updates include provisions on taxes for cider-makers, increasing pollinator habitat, expanding crop insurance, student loan forgiveness for farmers, funding farmland protection, farm labor issues, and boosting farm-to-school funding.

Cover and photos: New England Farmers Union