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The Farm Bill, Public Health and the Next Generation of Farmers

posted on Tue, Jun 14 2011 10:51 am by Jill Krueger

The Farm Bill
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has a vision for the next Farm Bill in which the United States will recruit 100,000 new farmers. This vision is born of urgency. In 2007, the average age of U.S. farmers was 57. But as is so often the case, danger is paired with opportunity.

National interest in the effect of agricultural laws upon our food systems has increased dramatically in the past decade. To date, much of the focus in the public health community has been upon access to healthy foods.

We can debate about whether some agricultural products (such as high fructose corn syrup) cost too little, and whether some agricultural products (such as strawberries and broccoli) cost too much. But when we consider matters from a farmer’s perspective, it becomes easier to understand why calling for lower prices for their products might not build trust between the public health community and farmers.

Yet there is a great deal more we could ask of our farm policy.

As a nation, and as a public health community, we have begun to call on farmers to:

  • produce more fruits and vegetables and other building blocks of a healthy diet

  • sell their produce directly to schools, to hospitals and to persons seeking to use  WIC and SNAP benefits at farmers markets

  • raise livestock on pasture, rather than in confined animal feeding operations, in order to improve the quality of our diet, water, soil and air

  • eliminate the routine subtherapeutic use of antibiotics

  • reduce the use of pesticides through practices such as organic farming and integrated pest management

  • provide safe, humane working conditions and fair wages to farm workers

  • adopt farming and conservation practices that will increase the resilience of their farms in the face of natural disaster and climate change

  • develop farming practices to lengthen the growing season and replace fossil fuels with solar energy

  • implement and document on-farm food safety procedures

  • provide meaningful work and an opportunity for community reintegration for returning veterans

Achieving these goals on a wide scale would require a willingness and ability among farmers—whether beginning ones or ones with years of experience under their belts—to take risks, to be innovative and, usually, to make a financial investment.

If the public health community wants farmers as committed allies in redirecting our nation’s agricultural policy and achieving important public health goals, and I believe we do, we will need to get creative to find win-win solutions.

I see increasing evidence that many key stakeholders are prepared to do just that.

The Healthy Eating Research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sponsored a conference in 2009 on food systems and public health.

Additionally, the American Public Health Association, American Dietetic Association, American Nurses Association and American Planning Association came together last year to endorse broad principles of a healthy, sustainable food system.

Last month, I attended a Healthy Farms, Healthy People summit that brought together leaders from health, public health, sustainable and family farm agriculture, fruit and vegetable grower associations and the anti-hunger community to exchange stories, seek common ground and build relationships to expand and strengthen the base for future dialogue and coalitions.

Our current national food system is in many respects a testament to successful agricultural policy. The nation achieved the low-priced food it sought. But that result carried with it a host of unintended consequences. By building broad coalitions to engage in correspondingly broad thinking, we increase our chances of generating agricultural policies that serve a more holistic set of goals. If we can do that, 100,000 new farmers could be good for our health.

This information was developed by Jill Krueger, senior attorney for the Network for Public Health Law – Northern Region at the Public Health Law Center.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
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