Ahead of Farm Bill, Rep. Casar Taps Central Texas Farmers for Input

Roundtable discussion urges quicker loans, more land access, and easier paperwork

U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin meets with local farmers at FarmShare in Cedar Creek last Thursday (Photo by Lina Fisher)

The first farm bill was enacted in 1933 – FDR's response to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, meant to shore up agriculture, conservation, rural development, and nutrition programs. At Farmshare in Cedar Creek last Thursday, in a roundtable discussion with local farmers, freshman Rep. Greg Casar upheld the same goals: "We want to make sure that we're moving forward a farm bill that actually supports healthier food options, a more resilient and stable food supply chain, where we have more access to local food, where farmers can make a decent wage." As the omnibus bill comes up again this year for the first time since 2018, soaring food prices have puffed up already bloated agricultural monopolies with massive lobbying power. Meanwhile, 10% of Americans experience food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and locally it's 15%, according to last year's State of the Food System report.

“Little farms, we’re experimenting, we’re doing it, but that’s somewhere where I feel we don’t have support.” – Steelbow Farms’ Finegan Ferreboeuf

Coming from a discussion at the San Antonio Food Bank, Casar noted that one of his biggest priorities on the House Com­mittee on Agriculture would be defending Supplemental Nutrition Assist­ance Pro­gram (SNAP) benefits from Republicans, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who aim to cut it and the Special Sup­ple­mental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). SNAP's success also has implications for producers. Casar told the Chronicle that for many San Antonio farming families, food access programs are an important stream of income: "Vouchers for seniors, direct food delivery, programs for food access were basically the only reason that they were still able to make it and be on their parents' land. These are folks that have been growing okra and eggplant for generations. That's what we want our kids fed."

SNAP is as hard to understand as any other bureaucratic agency, noted Casar, but "we have to make it so that you don't have to have a legal department" to access benefits. Michelle Akindiya, education director for Farmshare, said Congress needs to "provide ongoing funding ... The same people that need SNAP this year will probably need it the next year." She also urged the expansion of incentive programs such as Double Up Food Bucks, which doubles the amount of produce you can get when you use SNAP dollars, "to not just urban areas but grocery stores in rural communities."

New farmers need the most help, but are also the most promising population to tackle the ag-fueled climate crisis: According to a 2022 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, "97% of young farmers reported using sustainable practices and 86% described their farms as regenerative." However, the programs in place that could help them become financially solvent aren't being used: Only 21% are certified organic and only 11% have participated in programs that could reimburse them for organic certification costs. "It needs to be simpler and more fruitful for young farmers to access resources that support organic farming" wrote the NRDC.

Access to land and startup capital are the biggest barriers to entry for young farmers. Especially in Central Texas, where prices are driven to astronomical heights by competition from developers as big as Elon Musk, farmers are being driven farther and farther from their markets – less than 1% of the food Austin consumes is grown here.

Loan programs that do exist, like the National Resources Conservation Service – which the roundtable noted is the most trusted program across the board – and the USDA Farm Service Agency, are consistently underfunded and don't do sufficient outreach. Steelbow Farm's Finegan Ferreboeuf said FSA's low-interest loan programs "don't really make that much sense for the Austin market" as they're "notorious for taking like, six to nine months. No landowner is gonna wait [that long]. And it's also capped at like $600,000. That's nothing [in Austin]." Greg Mast, who works at the Central Texas Food Bank and also has a small vegetable farm in Elgin, urged "access to working capital that does not require a rapid repayment in the very early stages of growing the farm business. So many of the programs are reimbursement programs, but I don't have any spare cash to front the expense."

On a larger scale, the farm bill could not only address food insecurity and encourage new farmers, but also coax agriculture away from Monsanto and toward a greener future. "Agriculture currently is a huge contributor to climate change, but we could be a huge part of the solution," Ferreboeuf noted. "But that takes a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of innovation and creativity, and that needs to be big resources coming from top down. Little farms, we're experimenting, we're doing it, but that's somewhere where I feel we don't have support."

Akindiya added that big-picture, treating farming operations as a single-proprietor business is unsustainable: "That's probably one of the most fragile ways to set up your food system," she said, pointing to the example of Johnson's Backyard Garden next door to Farmshare, which sold to a developer in 2021 as a result of the owner's mental health crisis: "One person was able to make that decision about a farm that was feeding hundreds of people a week. Our food system doesn't have to be based on a small-business model. Other important infrastructure that we don't treat as a small business are things like power, water, gas. Maybe food is next?"

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