SARANAC LAKE - Agriculture took center stage here on Friday as the U.S. House of Representatives held the first of four nationwide hearings on the 2012 Farm Bill at North Country Community College.
Labor issues, marketing, crop insurance and the price of milk dominated the three-hour session, which was held by the House Agriculture Committee. The hearing's aim was to gather input as federal lawmakers prepare to reauthorize the Farm Bill later this year. The last farm bill, in 2008, cost $288 billion.
The committee heard from two panels. The first consisted of dairy and beef producers, and the second featured specialty crop producers.
Arden Tewksbury, left, manager of the Progressive Agriculture Organization of Pennsylvania, shakes hands with U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia, during a break at Friday’s Farm Bill hearing in Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
"Field hearings are one of the most important parts of the Farm Bill process," said committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Oklahoma. "Not only do they allow the members of our committee to hear directly from farmers and ranchers, but they give us a chance to see the diversity of agriculture across this great country."
Other members of the committee were more direct in emphasizing the importance of the hearing and putting together a strong Farm Bill.
"No farms, no food," said U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook. "We need to appreciate that. Otherwise, we're going to end up guarding food overseas."
The panels represented a wide range of producers, from dairy farmers and organic beef producers to grape growers and apple orchards. Lucas said it was fitting to host the hearing in New York because it's among the top five states nationwide in apple, wine, grape, vegetable and dairy production.
The goals for the next Farm Bill, Lucas said, are to continue providing farmers with the tools they need "to produce the safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply in the world."
"To do this we must develop a Farm Bill that works for all regions and all commodities," he said.
One of the top issues discussed at the hearing was crop insurance.
Adam Sullivan, of Sullivan Orchards in Peru, told the committee his orchard participates in the federal crop insurance program, which involves private insurance companies. He underscored the importance of the program with a story from his childhood.
On a Saturday afternoon in 1983, a storm hit Clinton County, Sullivan said. The initial hail from the storm caused some damage, and Sullivan's father inspected the crop and found it salvageable.
"Then 5:30 came, and the real storm began," an emotional Sullivan recounted. "I don't remember how long it lasted, but I remember him staring out the window with my mother consoling him.
"It was determined that a tornado landed less than a mile away and pummeled the apples. I was six. The crop was severely destroyed, but mom and dad were only able to sell a load of juice. That year's crop fermented on the orchard. The real kicker was they didn't have crop insurance. It took them more than a decade through hard work and God's good will, but they got the orchard financially secure again."
Sullivan said insurance will never make a farmer "whole" following a natural disaster, but the program does allow producers to maintain their livelihoods.
Panelists told the committee that crop insurance is a necessity when it comes to managing risk, but the federal government shouldn't implement it in a way that distorts markets or over-burdens farmers with more regulations.
Most of those who testified said U.S. Department of Labor regulations and guest-worker programs like the H-2A visa have started impeding the ability of farmers to hire migrant or immigrant workers.
Eric Ooms, a dairy producer from Old Chatham, said the U.S. either needs to import labor or import its food, because American workers aren't lining up for seasonal farm jobs.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, asked the farmers if they would support a program that would allow individuals in the country illegally to apply for a work visa.
Larry Eckhardt, who grows vegetables and produces beef in Kinderhook, said he'd rather see less regulation on the age of workers. Ralph Child, a seed potato and leafy greens producer in Malone, said he would favor such a program as long as it didn't mean a fast track to citizenship.
"Most of the people don't care to become citizens," he noted, adding that many of the foreign workers return to their home countries after the harvest.
Child said whether these workers are in the country legally or not, "They are doing the jobs that most Americans don't want to do."
Sullivan said the Jamaican workers that pick apples on his orchard pay state and federal taxes, shop at local stores and attend local churches.
"Let's get an effective guest-worker program passed for all commodities," he said.
As small farms and specialty crop producers become more prevalent, panelists said the federal government must continue to help those producers market their products.
The Specialty Crop Block Grant program, for example, helps farmers with direct marketing.
The "eat local" movement is a big part of the effort to help small farms spread the word about their business. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said that in her state, the average age of farmers is falling, and production is going up.
Pingree asked Michele Ledoux of the Adirondack Beef Company in Croghan if the federal government can do more to help promote smaller farms. Ledoux and Ooms both said existing educational programs and the surge in popularity of farmers markets are already doing a lot of the marketing work.
"People truly want to know where their food is coming from," Ledoux said. "They want to talk directly to that farmer, they want to look them in the face, and they want to say, 'I bought this product from you. I want to know that you grew it, you raised it and you took care of it from the beginning to where it was processed.' Whatever that is, whether it's vegetables or it's meat, they know you were the one that was involved in it."
Ledoux said community outreach programs let farmers make that connection with consumers.
While the hearing itself was mostly constructive, some farmers in attendance were skeptical of it - especially because it was held in the Adirondack Park.
Arden Tewksbury, manager of the Progressive Agriculture Organization of Pennsylvania, told the Enterprise that hosting the hearing in Saranac Lake was a means of keeping farm advocates from attending. He said farmers from much of the East Coast, in states like Virginia and Georgia, were more or less shut out; the remaining hearings are scheduled for Oklahoma, Arkansas and Illinois.
But in a meeting with the Enterprise following the hearing, Gibson stood behind the committee's decision to host the hearing in New York. For one, House rules dictate that at least one hearing be held in a Democrat's district. With Owens and Gibson on the committee, New York was picked as one of the sites, and Owens got the nod. Gibson said Owens asked that it be held in an area represented by both congressmen. The line between their districts runs down the middle of Saranac Lake. NCCC, where the hearing was held, is actually in Gibson's district.
Friday's hearing was also a chance for members of the public to watch the federal government in action. That's why Roger Miller, a government and economics teacher at Chateaugay Central School, brought a group of juniors and seniors to check out the hearing.
Miller said a lot of people don't hear about a bill until it goes to the president for a signature.
"It certainly was eye-opening for them," he said of the students. "Admittedly, it was a little dry for some of them. But I'm into policy, so I had a great time today."
Junior Sarah Gardner said she was most interested in the stories some of the farmers told.
"Agriculture is very important in this area," she said. "I think it's good for them (the panel) to hear the local perspective."
Contact Chris Morris at 518-891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.