Many Washington farmers have argued there is a disconnect in the state between those that produce food and those who consume it – a disconnect often reflected in statewide agricultural policies. With the COVID-19 outbreak straining the supply chain and leaving store shelves empty, some industry advocates hope that the current situation might highlight to both consumers and lawmakers the importance of economically healthy farms.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security included agriculture among the 16 sectors considered to be “essential infrastructure.”
“As our food supply becomes somewhat questionable, I think this is the time at which people really need to understand that there are opportunities for us as farmers and ranchers to make a huge impact in your life, regardless of how connected you are to the farm,” Dr. Paige Pratt with the Pratt Cattle Company said at the Washington Policy Center’s (WPC) April 15 virtual summit.
“When I visit with an urban legislator, most of the time they’ll say to me: ‘Well that’s great, but I don’t have any farmers in my district,’ (but) they’re connected at least three times a day when they sit down to eat a meal. It is essential for agricultural and farming interests to do better at bridging the knowledge gap.”
Washington’s agricultural industry is the one of the largest in the state; at $20.1 billion annually, it is second only to Washington aerospace ($22 billion). However, farms are facing numerous challenges. One is a deficit of young farmers to replace the older ones as they retire. According Pratt, the average farmer is 59 years old.
“Quite frankly, the younger farmers are the future of our food security,” she said.
A related issue is the labyrinth of regulations that can make it difficult for farms to turn a profit. Pratt said the average farm in Washington has more than $210,000 in expenses yet generates an average income of only $47,000. “What normal people would spread out over time, these folks are dealing with on a daily basis. It can be pretty tough to get those folks incentivized (to be farmers).”
She added that for the situation to change, farms must be able “to diversify or expand without heavy regulations, so that young people can get involved in the farm and it can remain profitable.”
The meager income and enormous expenses are viewed as being among several causes for the closure or consolidation of 1,400 family farms in the state between 2012-2017, 90 percent of which were considered “small” farms.
Pratt said one way to improve the outlook is creating a regulatory structure that allows smaller operations to exist. HB 2777 sponsored by Rep. Noel Frame (D-36) this session would have created a pilot project for 50 microenterprise home kitchen operations, which would be exempt from the state’s food service code. The bill cleared the House Committee on Local Government after a public hearing but did not advance from the Appropriations Committee.
Pratt said these kitchens would have been ideal for the ongoing COVID-19 response. “It would allow people that are maybe laid off from their jobs or people who had an interest in trying this business to be able to start providing some meals so that those who are essential workers would be able to still provide a nutritious, home cooked meal to their family.”
“Bad agricultural policy can make the difference between farming and closing a farm,” WPC Agricultural Initiative Director Pam Lewison said at the summit. “Agriculture and farming dominate the lifestyles of eastern Washington. If you don’t farm, you have family who do…but on the west side it’s easy to avoid farming… yet it is those population areas that call the policy shots.”
In an April 6 blog post, Lewison argued that adequate funding from the $23 billion from the latest federal stimulus package allocated for agriculture will be critical in the short-term. “The agriculture community needs the funds, and the time the money will provide, to help adjust to working conditions this spring. The primary focus should be on keeping the agricultural community functioning to keep the food supply chain operational both now and in the future.”