In Columbia South Carolina, Small and Organic Farmers Talk Farm Bill with US Ag Secretary

In Columbia South Carolina, Small and Organic Farmers Talk Farm Bill with US Ag Secretary

In Columbia South Carolina, Small and Organic Farmers Talk Farm Bill with US Ag Secretary

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, City Roots Farm Manager Eric McClam and S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers discuss amaranth seedlings that City Roots sells as microgreens. Perdue visited City Roots Jan. 27, 2018.

Eva Moore

President Donald Trump's agriculture secretary visited a small urban farm in Columbia today, a stop that highlighted the sometimes conflicting political interests that face farmers.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue toured City Roots, a Rosewood farm that grows microgreens prized by local chefs. The farm also grows flowers and mushrooms, hosts events, teaches classes, gives school tours and acts as a sort of incubator for farm talent. 

This year, Congress will take up a new Farm Bill, something it does roughly every five years. Perdue was in the Capital City to ask farmers what they want to see in it. 

The answer from the small crowd, several of them younger farmers from small-scale, organic or sustainable farms: 1, keep programs alive that help launch and boost farms like theirs, and 2, change regulations that are designed with large farms in mind.

Perdue held City Roots Farm Manager Eric McClam up as an example of someone who has "mined the USDA very successfully," making use of its many grants and programs for small farms. 

Added S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, who was also in attendance, "City Roots is a good advertisement for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I tell you what."

At a few points, Perdue tried to draw connections between the small farmers' requests and key Republican values. 

For example, Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, asked for Perdue's help in addressing the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act. It's an FDA program, not a USDA program, but it sets standards for food handling that could end up costing small farms a lot of money.

"It is going to be a burden for small-scale farms such as [City Roots] to come into compliance," McReynolds said, noting that farmers have an in obvious interest in food safety but face regulatory burdens. "Farmers want to do the right thing. They don't want to kill their customers."

Perdue took the opportunity to knock some other federal regulations that he said have "unintended consequences," such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. 

Meanwhile, City Roots Farm Manager Eric McClam asked for help eliminating a $20,000 annual cap on payments that organic farms can receive for certain conservation practices under the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program. A large part of the program's funding is set aside for livestock operations instead. 

Perdue, who started the job last April, said he hadn't been aware of the cap. But he noted that any changes to the USDA and the Farm Bill will be "evolutionary, not revolutionary."

And at several points, Perdue was sure to emphasize — in subtle terms — that he's not looking to favor the kind of farming City Roots is doing at the expense of bigger commodity crop operations. 

Ben DuBard, organic farm manager for massive Walter P. Rawl Farms in Lexington County, as well as a board member of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, asked for some consideration in the Farm Bill of what are called "specialty crops" — a category that covers most non-commodity crops, from fruit to spinach, as opposed to commodities like cotton and soybeans. Specialty crops have a more direct connection between eater and farmer, DuBard suggested. 

"People who grow specialty crops grow food that people eat," DuBard told Perdue. "I just want to make sure that specialty crops remain a very strong part of the Farm Bill. I feel like specialty crops are the rock stars of farming because the consumer can directly identify with it."

But Perdue pushed back a bit.

"I think you'll see more interest [in specialty crops] because of the movement and how the organic community has been in creating the demand, but we don't need to do that at the expense of any other part of agriculture," Perdue said. "It's all important and we're all in this together. So we don't need to say we're better than they. Everyone can be successful."

DuBard also made a common request for larger farms like WP Rawl, which employs some 800 people: keep immigrant labor coming.

"At our scale it is very difficult for us to find Americans who really want to do the work," DuBard said. "The immigrants who come in from Latin America do a really great job for us and they're getting harder and harder to get."

Perdue said, "The president's very mindful of the need for a legal farm workforce," and namechecked a proposal by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte to reform the guestworker program. 

The visit put a national spotlight on City Roots, which was started in 2010 by McClam's father, Robbie McClam, though Eric quickly took on the top job. 

Perdue noted that the 32-year-old McClam is part of the "millennial resurgence" in farming. 

"We see a resurgence in interest in the therapeutic nature of running your hands through the ground," he said at one point. 

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