Feb 26, 2009
When Abraham Lincoln formed the US Department of Agriculture in 1862
he referred to it as the "People's Department" because it served the
common interest of so many Americans. America's concerns about food and
the economy were addressed and investments in cutting-edge research
guaranteed the nation's food security.
than 200 years later, we are in the midst of a historic financial
crisis and part of the solution lies with the "People's Department."
It's time for our newest federal leaders to recognize the unmatched
ability of family farmers to strengthen local economies. We can all
learn from the ingenuity and innovation that family farmers demonstrate
time and time again in the face of challenge.
In the 1980s,
American farmers found themselves in a fight for their lives. Low
prices for farm products, plummeting land values, rising interest
rates, and skyrocketing production costs overloaded farmers with
crashing debts that forced tens of thousands to lose their land. In
response, the Credit Act of 1987 freed up credit for farmers and
allowed for loan restructuring so farmers could honor their debt.
Farmers were able to stay on their land and create a thriving network
of local and regional food systems that provides jobs and food for
their neighbors today.
Yet again farmers are faced with seemingly
insurmountable financial hardship. The credit farmers need in order to
pay for their seasonal start-up costs is tight, like credit is for the
rest of the country. Instability in market prices and threats from
weather-related disasters make it hard for banks to guarantee their
investment, discouraging lending and encouraging high interest. At the
same time, rising operating costs and declining prices for their
products are making it nearly impossible for farmers to keep up with
their debt. Many farmers have to put their homes up as security on
their farm loans, which means if they fall behind on their farm loan
payments they can lose their businesses and their homes.
USDA, with help from other agencies, should restore fair credit,
prices, and practices for family farmers. As Agriculture Secretary Tom
Vilsack makes plans to implement the 2008 Farm Bill, Treasury Secretary
Timothy Geithner would be well served to consider lessons from the
1980s and extend loan protections under the federal bailout to family
farmers, preventing home foreclosures and bankruptcy among farmers and
ranchers. As a condition of receiving any federal government funds,
Treasury needs to require banks providing farm credit to restructure
loans when farmers are unable to make payments due to circumstances
beyond their control, such as market- and weather-related disasters.
Requiring no additional funding, this simple action would prevent
thousands of farmers from joining the ranks of the jobless and homeless
while guaranteeing a safe, secure food supply and creating local job
Vilsack can also act quickly to get funds to
farmers who need it most. Farmers who were hit hard by disasters in
2007 and 2008 still have not received the funding available in Farm
Bill disaster relief programs. And the USDA needs to get the word out
fast about additional funding for direct operating loans that Congress
included in the stimulus bill. If farmers are having trouble accessing
the credit they need for this year's growing season, the Farm Service
Agency might just be able to help. Swift implementation of already
enacted legislation can mean the difference between losing more farmers
and keeping those farmers on the land.
Family farmers are a
national resource with the potential to help solve the challenges we
currently face. The agriculture sector is projected to have contributed
more than $130 billion to the US economy in 2008. The hard work of
family farmers is strengthening local economies, reducing the nation's
reliance on fossil fuels, protecting natural resources, and increasing
national security. The United States is re-laying the groundwork of its
economic stability, and family farmers are the key to a strong
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