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Support for NH's small farms, disaster recovery at the center of farm bill listening session

Rep. Annie Kuster held a listening session with advocates and officials on Tuesday ahead of the deadline to reauthorize the farm bill.
Mara Hoplamazian
Rep. Annie Kuster held a listening session on Aug. 29, 2023 with advocates and officials on Tuesday ahead of the deadline to reauthorize the farm bill.

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, federal officials and other farm policy leaders held a listening session Tuesday in Hanover to discuss the 2023 Farm Bill.

Congress reauthorizes the legislation every five years, and the 2018 bill expires at the end of September. It generally encompasses a diverse range of government programs like agricultural aid, food stamps and rural development.

New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Shawn Jasper said farmers are especially in need of relief after this summer’s difficult weather.

“Mother Nature has thrown everything she’s had at our farmers,” he said. “We can hope that we don't see anything like this again. But that's not likely to be the case, unfortunately.”

New Hampshire is getting warmer and wetter with climate change, but it could also face more severe droughts.

The bill also allocates funds for disaster aid, which typically is distributed in the form of emergency low-interest loans. In New Hampshire this growing season, intense flooding and other extreme weather events have caused significant damage to farms, making many growers eligible for this assistance.

Jasper said the bill should focus on supporting small, local farms — though, he said, in the past the farm bill has prioritized the needs of large farmers, particularly those in the Midwest or those growing crops like grain.

“There really hasn't been a lot for individual farms and the farm bills for New Hampshire,” he said. “There are some opportunities, but they're not something that has a large impact.”

Jasper suggested dedicating some funding set to go to broadband instead to farmers.

“We can’t eat broadband,” he said, raising a chuckle from the crowd.

The last time the bill was reauthorized in 2018, 76% of the funding went to federal nutritional programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP or food stamps, which provides money for low-income people to buy groceries.

Earlier this year, additional pandemic SNAP allotments expired, reducing the amount of money SNAP participants received. Eileen Groll Liponis, who leads the New Hampshire Food Bank, said the monthly allotment for a family of four dropped from $650 to less than $250.

“That’s a significant cut when everything is raising in prices,” she said.

She said she hopes the farm bill protects programs like SNAP and initiatives that broaden access to locally grown food.

Julie Davenson, the president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire, said some of her organization’s priorities were investing in organic practices, rural communities, breaking up consolidation in agriculture, centering racial justice, and eliminating the use of toxic substances in the food system.

“Organic practices are inherently a solution for climate change, and so we are looking for programs that invest in and protect that integrity,” she said.

During her time in Congress, Kuster said the interests of smaller farmers have often been overlooked in favor of supporting states with larger farms. But, she said, she’s hoping for more programming and support for small family farmers.

“What we’re starting to see, because of the impact of the changes to our climate, because of the impact of the expenses going up for them around energy and land value — we’re seeing farmers actually sell the farm,” she said. “And not only are we losing the capacity to grow local healthy food, we're also losing our landscape, which is just so important to us here in New Hampshire, the way we live, the value of being here for our tourism, for our quality of life.”

While many at the forum celebrated the impact of the Inflation Reduction Act, Kuster said she is concerned the efforts to help local farmers through that law could be rolled back through the farm bill.

Kuster said she’s expecting the farm bill reauthorization process to drag past the end of September, when the 2018 Farm Bill expires, because partisan fighting could slow the process.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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