Saving our small farmers means saving our world

COLUMBIA CITY - If you're the glass-half-empty type, you might think that our nation's family farmers deserve a place on the federal government's endangered species list.

If you're a small family farmer producing safe, quality food for your community in a sustainable way, you'd probably rather see a smidge of fairness and common sense built into Farm Bill 2007, some of the broadest and wide-reaching legislation enacted in the United States in the last five years.

If you're a city kid, you're likely wondering why in the world you should care about this country's farm bill, of all things.

And if you're Steve and Beverly Phillips, owners of Port Madison Farm on Bainbridge Island, you're approaching retirement wondering who is going to carry on the family dairy farm when the offspring aren't up for a life of milking goats and making cheese 365 days a year.

The answer to all of the above: Save the small farmer, save the world.

It's true.


In 1900, 40 percent of the United States population farmed. One hundred years later, just 2 percent were farming. Some studies show a staggering loss of 3.5 million farms in just the last 50 years.

"For more than 50 years a handful of agricultural conglomerates, assisted by federal farm policy, have been working to drive small farmers off their land by paying them less for their produce than it costs to grow it," argues Jody Aliesan, President of the PCC Farmland Fund.

That, coupled with a food infrastructure that offers the majority of the value of a product to the retailer, followed by the marketers and advertisers, then the processors, brokers and transporters, with the farmer getting the scraps of what's left, is conspiring to make the family farm extinct in America.

Why should you care? Because Steve and Beverly eat, sleep and dream food: fresh, wholesome, quality food. They milk their goats by hand, don't have it in them to give away the babies (the farm continues to grow) and basically dedicate their entire lives to making sure that the food they produce is safe, delicious, free from hormones, chemicals and artificial additives and good for the body, the soul and the environment.

That's in contrast to industrial farms that grow masses of wasteful and environmentally degrading commodities like corn, soy, cotton, wheat and rice, for less than the cost of production, with taxpayer subsidies nonetheless making up the difference, and the biggest farms getting the lion's share of the welfare check.

Indeed, current farm policy, much of which has been in place since the Great Depression, supports and encourages a food production and distribution system inherently destructive to public health and the environment.

Meanwhile, small, safe, efficient and environmentally sound farms with wholesome and organic practices like Port Madison get a whole lot of nothing by way of federal grants. Yes, that nice guy at the farmers market that milks his goats by hand every single day of the year so you can sit on the deck and enjoy his amazing chèvre with a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread this summer is getting the shaft.


Don't let the name fool you. Our nation's farm bill currently under review and revision and set to be signed into law this fall could also be known as our food bill, renewable energy bill, nutrition bill, environmental stewardship bill and anti-hunger bill for its wide-reaching effects on the everyday lives of most Americans.

And at a mind-numbing $165 billion in direct subsidies between 1995 and 2005, it better.

The Farm Bill is responsible for food stamps, school lunch programs, and other nutrition program funding, as well as providing income and price supports for a number of storable commodity crops, so it ultimately has a huge influence on what Americans eat (particularly public school children and the poor), how food tastes, how much it costs, which crops are grown under what conditions, how immigrant farm workers are treated, the state of the environment and whether or not our citizens are healthy and well-nourished.

Indeed, as developmental sprawl gobbles up two acres of U.S. farmland every minute; real estate costs rapidly outpace middle-class incomes; poor communities and those of color, like our own Southeast Seattle, suffer from diabetes up to four times the rate than whiter and wealthier communities like Mercer Island; and more than 65 percent of the adult population and 15 percent of American children and adolescents are considered overweight or obese by the American Heart Association, it would seem that current farm policy is a dismal failure.

While some attempt to portray the small family farmer as inefficient city folk, it's clear that if anyone is going to help provide our citizens with a safe, quality and sustainable food supply free from harmful chemicals and artificial additives, it's not going to be the corporate farms of America or China, but the Steve and Beverly Phillipses of the world who work nonstop year round to produce healthy and delicious food straight from the source.

Located on Bainbridge Island, Port Madison Farm produces its own yogurts, chèvre, various soft cheeses, and a cheddar, all from pasteurized goat's milk. Contact owners Steve and Beverly Phillips at (206) 842-4125.

Mount Baker writer Amber Campbell may be reached via

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