With the sun shining, bright green plants popping up, and baby animals frolicking in the fields, it would be easy to assume that business is back to normal after the devastation that Lowcountry farmers faced only six months ago with the 1,000-year-flood. But while farmers are looking forward to this season with hope, whether or not the season will deliver remains to be seen.
Reflecting on the months after the floods is brutal. Those of us in the industry had to watch the waters continue to rise long after the much publicized flooding had made national headlines. With ditches and roads washed out, ponds filled to the brim, and the water table saturated, every inch of rain felt like an ocean. The shellfish industry took a major hit with beds closing two days after the season opened, while many livestock producers had to scramble to move their animals to higher ground if there was any to be found. Hundreds of farmers have spent months standing at the edge of their destroyed fields unable to bring equipment in to make repairs, prepare their fields, or plant their next crop, all while the bills continue to pile up.
While farmers are no strangers to the hardships created by weather extremes and market fluctuation, last year was a trifecta of trouble. We had a summer drought, a drop in market prices for commodity farmers, and the worst flood our state has ever seen. Farming is risky and although successful farm businesses plan for the worst, circumstances last year put everyone to the ultimate test. A number of farms shut their doors and many are literally banking on this year’s crops to keep them in business. For those gearing up for the season, one of the biggest challenges will be finding, affording, and keeping labor.
Digging into the reality of farming is something not everyone has the stomach for, but with only 1 percent of our population farming, it is in our best interest to not only understand the challenges that farmers are facing but to take an active role in ensuring this industry can be a profitable and realistic business venture for the next generation. That, quite literally means, putting your money where your mouth is. Consider this: Despite the growing popularity of the “eat local” movement, South Carolina is still importing over 90 percent of its food. Challenge yourself to eat more locally, sign-up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share, and make the farmers market a part of your routine. Even more importantly, get educated on the policies impacting our farmers and our food. The industry was facing serious issues long before the rains came and will continue to remain unstable even with an increase in consumer demand.
The long-term solutions go beyond the plate and into the broader food and political systems. In the last year, Country of Origin Labeling, the Food Safety Modernization Act, and the 2016 funding bill have been passed that change what and how things are labeled, how farmers are regulated to meet food safety standards, and how much funding will be allocated towards farmer programs and support services. Whether or not you chose to participate in the process, these laws were passed and will impact the information you have as a consumer, what products you can access at the store, and whether or not your local farmers can continue to make a living now and in the future.
Looking forward, there is proposed legislation at the state and national level that has the potential to either help or hinder family farms right here in our backyard. On a state level, the Palmetto Farm Aid Bill would provide disaster relief funding for South Carolina farmers while the Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture Program and Fund proposes training and support for veterans transitioning into agriculture. On the national level, there’s the Young Farmer Success Act. This proposed legislation addresses the diminishing number of farmers who are aging out. In order to encourage young people to enter the farming field, the Young Farmers Success Act would incentivize farming as a career by adding farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program which currently applies to teachers, government service members, and nurses. Under the program, public service professionals who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments would have the balance of their loans forgiven. Another piece of legislation is the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Budget Appropriations for Agriculture. This is a trade and investment agreement between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations now awaiting an up-or-down vote by the U.S. Congress.
All of these issues could have lasting impacts on our Lowcountry farmers. Familiarize yourself with the proposals, contact your local, state, and federal officials to let them know how you feel. Yes we all love a witty bumper sticker and inspiring Facebook post but that is not how democracy works. It is time to remind our leadership that agribusiness is the number one industry in our state, that the nation’s food independence is at stake, and that we need an even playing field for our locally owned family farms. Then you can reward yourself with a delicious locally grown meal and raise a locally sourced cocktail to cheers our hardworking farmers for spending their days fighting the odds to feed us all.