Carol Anne Costa: I Heart My Farmer…And So Does the Farm Bill
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Four years in the making, the bill finally gets moved forward through the efforts of Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and House Republican, Representative Frank J. Lucas of Oklahoma. If I close my eyes, I can hear the heavenly choirs rejoicing...or is that the sound of revving tractors, combines, and milking machines? No matter, as it is about time that we can deliver some certainty to the folks that grow, process, deliver, and manage our food supply. It is in all of our best interest that this bill finally gets reauthorized. But the Farm Bill is not a monolith speaking only to agriculture. I prefer to focus on how it helps those who grow, steward, and harvest our food, as without them, all bets are off.
A tough row to hoe
This bill represents a remarkable reform of policies that directly impact American agriculture. The bill speaks to jobs and subsidies in a very bold way. Direct payments to farmers for not growing crops will end, thereby streamlining programs and cracking down on fraud, waste, and abuse. According to a bill review issued by Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chair of the United States Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry includes provisions for solid reforms for folks who actually farm including:
• Closing the “management loophole,” through which people who were not actually farming obtain subsidies.
• Strengthening crop insurance so that farmers are not wiped out by a few days of bad weather.
• Consolidating 23 existing conservation programs into 13 programs while maintaining existing tools to protect and conserve land, water and wildlife.
• Expanding support and access to local farmers markets by providing matching funds up to $20 million to incentivize SNAP to buy more wholesome and locally grown food.
This, in my view, is farmer-friendly action, and in a time when we should be consumed by food safety and buy local initiatives this represents a step in the right direction, not to mention proving the Congress can act in a bipartisan fashion even in these polarized times.
Needless to say, “I heart my farmer”! I can boast being a graduate of one of the pioneer RI high schools in the business of creating, educating and supporting farmers. Oh yes, I am a proud member of Ponanganset High School, Class of 1978. So many of the kids I went to school with were as adept at sports as they were at 4H and FFA. And for this transplant, the ability to tell a good looking Myotonic (fainting) goat as well as magnificently executed jump shot have become points of pride. So a bill that can emerge from Congress to help farmers and provide supplemental nutrition and cut waste, fraud, and abuse while supporting local farmer’s markets is as welcome as a crisp fall night picking crops under a bright harvest moon.
Connecting urban and rural communities
Like the country mouse and the city mouse, we have more in common than we realize. My early years were spent happily in the Silver Lake section of Providence, at the knee of a grandfather who transformed a small plot of earth into a bounty including fruits, vegetables, greens, and fresh eggs. Learning early on where food grows and the talent and tenderness it takes to get to harvest is a life lesson I cherish. I admire and celebrate every person who respects the planet and has a hand in producing safe, organic, and wholesome food. To this day, I have so many friends from Ponaganset and Adah S. Hawkins Elementary School who have devoted a great portion of their lives to farming in big ways and small, and all of them are about sustainability and educating the next generation. That is why the community support in this bill is terrific for farmers and neighborhoods alike.
According to Stabenow, by providing access to healthy foods by strengthening programs that focus on fruits, vegetables, and organic crops, this bill not only promotes healthy home grown foods but also makes farmers markets and specialty crops one of the fastest growing segment of agriculture, making them a critical part of the U.S. economy and an important job creator. The sale of specialty crops nets nearly $65 billion annually.
Hope springs eternal
I can say this—hope springs eternal—but my oh my, so does this long and frozen winter. With each cold day, flurry, hard driving rain, ice, and blustery wind storm I find myself hoping, praying, and wishing for spring. This year when it comes—and I know it will, whether like a lion or lamb—I yearn for that first head of romaine lettuce and tasty strawberry and will frankly oggle the first crocus peeking its head through the dirt. Come on, admit it. You are with me on this, especially as you drive to work in a still-cold car and can't wait to tell coworkers your crocuses, iris, and tulips are peering through the soil, a sure sign of warmth and birth. It certainly does make the coffee taste better, as the promise of growth is right around the corner. You hearken to early June when you can pick your strawberries and your Facebook page is alive with stories of new lambs, kids, and chicks.
Soon enough the people who tend the earth will be collecting fruits, veggies, fresh eggs, goats milk, wool, and so much more. That is why “I heart my farmer” and the farm bill. But it only succeeds when we as a society value and support the earth, the farmers, the food and merchants. Buy local, and above all spend your money with your hometown grower! As for me, I am off to get my fresh eggs from my elementary school classmate, Lee at Heritage Haven Homestead.
Related Slideshow: 5 New Food Trends to Try in 2014
Upscale Chefs go "Downscale"
It's an incredible expense of time and money to be among the best chefs around. All of those high-end ingredients cost an arm and leg and the pressure to stay on top is enormous. Most cooks began learning at the feet of their older relatives--moms and dads; grandmas and grandpas. It's this food that calls them back. We see local Chef Jake Rojas rejoice in dropping the tweezers and cooking those SoCal family recipes he grew up eating. Local faves Thames Street Kitchen embarked on a burger concept this year and Providence icon Chez Pascal has its "Wurst Window" serving homemade sausage and comfort food. They're upscale food is wonderful, but this might be their best!
More Gluten Free Options
As we continue to pay the "processed food" price, our nation's food allergies continue to soar. Restaurants have been on the forefront of the movement towards options that take these allergies into account. The gluten allergy has taken the fore as bread and pasta and coated French fries became the first food victims of this allergy. Local establishments such as the Grange have taken gluten free to new heights with terrific vegetarian offerings. On the Hill, Pane e Vino has got an almost 40-item menu of gluten free options. It features everything an Italian meal could need without the worry.
Vietnamese as the "Go-To" Asian Cuisine
Every year it seems as though America "discovers" a new Asian country's food and gets hooked. This year it's the foods of Vietnam. Vietnamese food and ingredients have been a part of local Asian food for years now, but this time it stands on its own. Vietnam's food is highlighted by fresh, simple ingredients treated respectfully and flavorfully. Broths and noodles; lightly cooked meats and fresh vegetables all combine in a balanced meal. Locally we love Pho Horn in Pawtucket and Minh Hai in Cranston. Both are very good local versions of this wonderful cuisine.
Look...here's the problem with us Americans: we only eat the mild stuff. The muscle meat. It's chicken breast and tenderloin and striped bass filets. The problem with this style of eating is what it does to our ecosystem. Local fishermen used to be able to catch a bounty of swordfish BETWEEN the mainland and Block Island, now it's a day's trip to find them. Local chefs and fishermen are working diligently to bring back the mackerel and the sardine and the scup. Fish we have long since forgotten, but helped our forefathers thrive. Check out any of our top-notch "farm to table" spots--Persimmon in Bristol or Farmstead in Providence for example--to try a forgotten yet delicious fish.
As with most things food and beverage, the last 10 years have seen a move towards "smaller is better". Big box stores are gone and chain restaurants are suffering locally. It was only a matter of time until these ideas began making their way into our cocktails and boy are we psyched to see what the future holds. Locally we have Sons of Liberty in South Kingstown, producing small-batch whiskey, single malts and, even vodka. Our state features Coastal Extreme Brewery which makes Thomas Tew rum along with their Newport Storm beer. We've only gotten back into the distilling business here in Rhode Island in 2006 but we think tasty things are coming soon!
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