Farm and Order
June 30th, 2012 - By Lari Robling
In this third part of our on-going series about the Farm Bill, we go to the farmers. Considering Pennsylvania has very little commodity farming, this legislation impacts our region in some unique ways. Ben Wenk, a seventh generation farmer, talks about some important block grants while Phillip Smelz gets down to earth about the realities of a small farmer following the bill. And, on the lighter side, find out what Green Meadows farmer Ian Brendle thinks will be the new “IT” vegetable.
In the farming system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: commodity farmers, who grow corn, grains and soybeans; and specialty crop growers producing tree fruits, nuts, grapes even mushrooms, cranberries and vineyards.
Both are represented by the Farm Bill, a massive piece of legislation covering everything from SNAP food assistance to crop insurance and topics agriculturally esoteric. Up for renewal every five years, the Senate and the House need to pass it by September.
This is one of the stories of the men and women who feed the Delaware Valley and how this bill impacts them.
“Yeah, Farm Bill,” says Ben Wenk while working at Head House Farmer’s Market. “Big complicated piece of legislation that even when you know something about it you don't know much about it I guess.”
Wenk is a seventh generation farmer at Three Springs Fruit Farm just north of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As a specialty crop grower he follows issues affecting growing practices and marketing of his produce.
Notes Wenk, “ We had a number of things that were high priorities for us: the specialty crop block grant and the specialty crop research initiative both of which really benefit our industry in terms of research and modernizing our production and using more sustainable practices.”
Wenk also follows the grant that supports Market Access Program or MAP funding. It expanded his market by going global bringing export dollars to east coast apple growers….
“And so now our east coast apples have an export market in India whereas it had been dominated by Washington state apples,” says Wenk. “We would send a trade group over there to meet with buyers and we also reciprocated and brought them over here to see how we produce our fruit and all that was made possible by the MAP funding.”
Much of the difficulty parsing out the Bill is that it covers the entire country –regions with vastly different crops, weather and needs. One advantage the east coast has over the west is our sizeable population particularly in Farmer’s Markets.
Wenk explains, “Here in the East Coast our larger farms would be middle size farms out in Washington what that can afford a grower is economy of scale. Now the advantage we do have is we have access to a lot of customers right here in our backyard— which is why we are here at the Farmer's Market today.”
Farmer's Markets are thriving in our region are in large part because of support from The Farm Bill. Yet small farmers such as Phillip Smeltz, owner of Down to Earth Harvest Kennett Square PA, often don't have the time to even study the bill's impact.
“I don't know much about the farm bill it seems like it's more for the big commercial farmer,” says Smeltz. “We sell all retail. I farm four acres and we have a 60 member CSA and we do three farmers markets and that's about the baseline of our distribution.”
Over 30 years ago, Glenn Brendle started Green Meadow Farm in Lancaster County, developing a close relationship with chefs. His son, Ian, now works with him and says while the Farm Bill doesn't impact their style of farming, he has an interest.
Says Brendle, “What I'd like to see is more bills for young sustainable farmers I'd like to see those people getting farm grants–that's what we should be moving towards.”
The Farm Bill is chugging along through the legislative process. Having been passed by the Senate it is waiting for the House Agriculture Committee to do their mark up. It’s pretty much speculation what pieces will pass and won’t – particularly in an election year.
Being a relentless Farmer’s Market customer, as important as the Farm Bill is, there was one burning question I had to ask farmer Ian Brendle what's the next big thing in produce that will be on all our tables?
Surprisingly, Brendle says, “It's an old heirloom that not a lot of people grow –a variety of cabbage called Pa Flat Dutch. It is sauerkraut cabbage or coleslaw cabbage. It’s really sweet, compact has tremendous flavor, and good storage capabilities.”