As a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., is working to help small-farm operations. The sweeping legislation known as the “farm bill,” which currently is being written, touches on a number of issues ranging from organics to financing to housing. Here, she talks details with Enterprise. (Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
Tell us a little bit about the legislation you’re working on.
The bill is very broad, the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture is very broad. It does farming and all that entails; dairy policy; markets; farmers markets; food policy, generally; but also will probably pass (some) of the most significant environmental legislation for this session. (The) conservation section of the farm bill also does forestry and all that entails, I’m very involved in the bioenergy side of that … it also entails international food aid. And my favorite of all is rural development, which is as broad as it sounds: economic development in rural communities. It’s very open ended. (It’s) one of my best programs for bringing federal funding to New Hampshire — used for the River Valley Community College campus in Lebanon, when we made that change over from Lebanon College, that was a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan … rural development also includes water treatment plants all over my district. It’s a very broad category: housing, health care, higher education — any kind of economic development in a rural community.
I’m one of very few New Englanders (on the agriculture committee). I’m the first member from New Hampshire on the agriculture committee for close to 70 years, which gives you an indication of how far farm policy has shifted to Midwest agricultural business farming. (But) there’s a number of us who feel very strongly that small farms, New England-sized small farms, should have a voice in the farm bill.
Do you find that people are sometimes surprised to learn that the USDA umbrella is as big as it is?
Absolutely, people are surprised. I was surprised! I remember this: when President (Barack) Obama had (a task force focused on substance abuse in rural areas), he named Secretary (of Agriculture) Tom Vilsack as chairman, and people thought, “What was that about?” What it was about was the opioid epidemic had uniquely hit rural America in ways that were different than previous drug epidemics. Secretary Vilsack did a great job, and we’ve already had Secretary Sonny Perdue up to New Hampshire to talk about rural development funds. We’re working with the administration on a program for recovery housing for people who are in recovery from addiction and need a place to live so they can get back to work. So, yes, this is a very broad bill. This is just a funny quirk of Congress, I don’t know if we’ll do it differently this time, but (last time) we had 100 amendments (on the bill) and did what’s called the markup, where you vote on them all in one day, so it was 13 hours long. I’m not sure I understand why we did it that way. I would describe it as definitely the most interesting day of my time in Washington.
That’s saying a lot.
It is! And it was probably the most fun, just because I was brand new to Congress. And we made some great progress, got some really big wins in there on the conservation title about land and water conservation and small farms, and how you can use those funds for environmental protections, so that was exciting. We got a big win for organics — I’m very involved with organics, and I have a new amendment coming up in this farm bill that would be about helping small farms make the transition to organic in a more direct way.
What are some of the hurdles that farmers face in the process of transitioning to organics?
Right now it’s very cumbersome and it takes a long time. It takes up to three years, and most farmers can’t afford that. There’s a lot of cumbersome paperwork with the USDA to get recognized as organic. That’s what I’m trying to streamline, and often that’s where our focus is on trying to help small farmers. The types of regulations that are put into place when people are thinking about big agribusiness turns out to be so cumbersome for small farmers that they have a hard time complying with that regulation.
There is a program, the Northern Borders Commission, that is at risk in this farm bill. The Northern Borders Commission is funding that’s set aside (for) regional rural economic development. We’ve used these grant funds all over — Grafton County, Coos County, Sullivan County — to really great impact. And they’re not huge grants. That’s what I love about New Hampshire: $100,000 goes a long way, and $150,000 can really turn a project, in particular because those grants have a match component. The president’s original budget eliminated the Northern Borders Commission and the Appalachian Commission, so I have an amendment to the farm bill to preserve that. We haven’t seen the language of the farm bill — our Republican colleagues in the majority draft the farm bill, so we’re anxiously waiting to see what’s included.
Anxiously or eagerly?
Eagerly! It’s a little of both. We are trying to put out in advance what we’re looking for (the bill to include). It’s a whole lot easier if it’s in the original draft, but as I say, we did 100 amendments the last time, and many of our amendments got passed, so I’m willing to fight for them.
Many New Hampshire dairy farms of late have been on the edge of collapse. Why do you think that is?
Yes, we lost over a dozen, close to 20, and part of that was consolidation. And there may have been a number of reasons, but one of the big reasons is economically, the price of milk has been so depressed and the expenses have continued to grow. Often we talk about New England at the “end of the pipeline.” In agriculture, New England is at the end of the road for the price of feed that comes from the Midwest all the way to New England, or other products that they need to run a dairy farm. But feed is one of the big ones, so we have a couple of very specific suggestions that we’re making with our colleagues that have smaller dairy operations in the northwest.
The program that’s in place now is called the margin protection program, or MPP, and it has not worked for small dairy farmers. It’s actually a bit of a tragedy — many of the dairy farmers I’ve talked to, because they paid premiums — it’s an insurance product, is the way this works — they paid premiums and did not receive any benefit. So we need to adjust the formulas and the calculations to make sure that the insurance is affordable and effective, and we need to bring down the cost of the premiums, and we need to make sure that the data that they use in the formula takes into account that feed is more expensive here and takes into account (that) minor fluctuations make a difference for us. Currently, this formula is being calculated bimonthly, so once every two months, and we want to make sure that it’s done monthly so that, you know, if we have a drought, which we had, if we have a freeze, you know, so many things happen in New England, and they happen quickly.
Luckily last year we had a series of meetings with the dairy farmers that my office convened, and Lorraine Merrill, the (New Hampshire Department of Agriculture) commissioner, was with us. We included state legislators, and they were able to come up with a plan for $2 million (in) emergency aid due to the drought for New Hampshire, and I think that helped some (farmers) to survive through the year, but I want to make sure that we take care of them going forward.
Financing is so critical for the farms, especially small farms, and lines of credit are getting tight, or perhaps have been tight since the economic downturn of 2008. Is there anything afoot to help free up some financing for small farms?
Well, we do a lot with the Farm Credit bureau and the specific farm financing organizations, trying to make the distinction in the regulations between these big mega-commercial corporate farms in the Midwest and these small family operations in the Northeast, and we’ve had some good success working with the Farm Credit bureau and others to make sure farmers have access to the credit that they need, but they need to understand it’s a different world than what their counterparts in the Midwest might be looking at.
The topic of immigration, it’s fair to say, is fraught. What are you hearing from your constituents?
It is fraught, but it’s very relevant on the farm bill. We expect to be working on the farm bill this winter. The last time we did it was around March of 2013, so it could be in that timeframe. The immediate issue on Capitol Hill is the issue of the “Dreamers” and the people who were brought here when they were young children and are in college or in the military or working. But there’s another whole category, and that’s temporary farm labor. And there are many places right here in New Hampshire — our orchards, our dairy farmers — that rely upon temporary immigration labor.
The distinction being immigrants and migrants, is that accurate?
Yes, and typically these (temporary laborers) don’t intend to seek citizenship and stay. Their intention is to be here to work, and they may travel from site to site, up the coast, for example, following the harvest. These are called H-2B visas, and they’re different than the people who have the intention of pursuing a path to legal citizenship, but it’s very important in the farm bill.
Does that get caught up in the larger immigration debate?
It definitely does, and what’s interesting for me is we may be able to find more bipartisan common ground on the agriculture committee that theoretically could lead to a broader discussion and a broader agreement about immigration generally. It’s similar to the other issue that is relevant here in the Upper Valley: the visas for people either in high tech or in health care positions. Those high-end visas (are at) the opposite ends of the spectrum, but it’s a similar concept in that these people are needed to do work here and it ties into the broader discussion about where do Americans come from, and where have we (come from) for generations?
Will there even be a farm bill, or will it just get debated to death?
Well, knock on wood! Let me just say when I came in 2013, they had tried and failed in 2012. They did not get a farm bill. But I would say our committee has been, to date, very bipartisan. What’s interesting to me about the agriculture committee is it’s less partisanship and more regional, and so what I’m working to build is a coalition of New England, northeast and then go all the way across the Canadian border, over to Washington state, Oregon — create a coalition that is different from, as I keep going back to, these corporate firm interests in Iowa and Illinois and Indiana. So that’s what tends to happen on the committee: we tend to have allegiances based on these issues. I’ll give you a great example: Organics. One of my best allies, as I was trying to put forward legislation that would expand organics and organic markets and such, was a Republican from upstate New York. Well, it turned out he represented Chobani. You end up with these allegiances that are different than just party allegiances.
We also passed a bill that I really love that doubles the SNAP benefits for use at a farmers market. That’s a win-win-win. It helps farmers markets grow, which is an outlet for farmers and an economic market for them; it also gets low-income families eating more fruits and veggies and fresh, healthy food. That came together because of people that cared about families eating healthy food and people who wanted farmers markets to grow. So back to this cynical question: this may be the only thing that moves this year! I think whatever we put on the president’s desk he will sign, and we’ve had good relationships so far with the agriculture secretary — he’s come before our committee and was well received.