Growing locally, legislating nationally: Rules hinder state's specialty farmers

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2008 - 12:02 AM

Consumers want more fruits and vegetables from nearby, but Congress has limited Midwest expansion.

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Vegetable farmer Jack Hedin talked to his new hire from the U of M Justin Brown about the different farm impliments Hedin had shipped from California.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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WASHINGTON - Jack Hedin calls it forbidden fruit.

The organic fruits and vegetables that Hedin grows on his Featherstone Farm in southeastern Minnesota find eager buyers in co-ops all over the Twin Cities, frequented by urban dwellers hungry for fresh, locally grown food.

But in Congress, where lawmakers are rewriting federal farm policy for the next five years, much of what Hedin and other small-scale farmers grow in the Midwest falls under federal planting restrictions that add millions to the tab shoppers pay at the register.

Although the restrictions are facing more scrutiny this year in Congress, political handicappers -- including Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee -- say they're unlikely to go away soon.

Large-scale specialty crop growers in the South and West, particularly California, have successfully fought efforts in the farm bill to open up more Midwest farmland to fruit and vegetable production.

"They're afraid if you open this thing up, it will collapse the market, and they may be right," said Peterson, who is trying to broker a new farm bill this month.

So as legislators negotiate, the expanding consumer movement for locally grown food finds itself at odds with federal farm policies that seek to balance the competing interests of regional agricultural sectors.

"It all depends on location," said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation. "We can't all do the same thing."

A lesson in Rushford

Hedin, 41, discovered the power of location the hard way last summer when he tried to meet increasing market demand in the Twin Cities by renting an extra 25 acres next to his farm in Rushford, Minn. He'd been growing fruits and vegetables there for 12 years.

Hedin plowed under the fields and planted watermelons, tomatoes and vegetables for the natural food stores he supplies in the Twin Cities, including the Wedge Co-op, Mississippi Markets and Whole Foods.

Things were looking up, he said, until early July. That's when his two landlords discovered they had a problem with the local Farm Service Administration office, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Because Hedin's melons and tomatoes were planted on "corn base" acres, meaning land enrolled in a federal subsidy program for corn, the landowners would have to forfeit the subsidies on that acreage, perhaps permanently. And the subsidies they received on their remaining acreage would be reduced by the value of the crop that Hedin was growing on their land.

In all, Hedin had to pay his landlords $8,771, on top of the rent, adding substantially to his costs. To Hedin, that's tantamount to a fine for growing an "illicit" crop of fruits and vegetables. "This is a system that has been perverted in some way," he said.

Hedin understands the logic of not paying corn subsidies where there is no corn. But had his landlords grown another commodity crop such as soybeans or even done nothing at all with the land, they would not have put their federal payments at risk. The penalties kicked in only because the land was given over to fruits and vegetables, which are expressly restricted on commodity program acres.

"It is essentially a protected marketplace," Hedin said.

Protection or fair play?

But what looks like a protection racket in the Midwest seems like fair play in places such as Texas, Florida and California, where big specialty crop growers get few, if any, direct cash benefits from the government. They don't want to compete on price against produce grown on subsidized Midwestern farmland.

"It's a simple question of competition," said Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association, which represents the California and Arizona fresh produce industry. "The person who has the subsidy has the competitive advantage."

It's not just Western growers who resent the millions of dollars doled out to major commodity crop farmers. "The farm bill is the largest giveaway program in the U.S. government," said Champlin vegetable grower Bill Bauer, a board member of the Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson noted that the fruit and vegetable restrictions written into current law were intended to limit competition from large Midwest farms that grow subsidized commodity crops, such as corn, soybeans and wheat.

"I don't think anybody had imagined that it could come back to affect small individual operations like Jack Hedin," Hugoson said.

Turf battle intensifying

Hedin's predicament is not unique. Growers for large Midwestern canneries and food processors such as Minnesota's own Green Giant face the same planting restrictions on fruits and vegetables.

Partly in response, Peterson and other Midwestern lawmakers have sought a limited pilot program that would give more flexibility to Midwestern fruit and vegetable growers.

"Whether they're growing sweet corn to sell at their local market or beans to be canned by the Green Giant, many farmers in southern Minnesota are interested in diversifying their crops," said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn.

In response to increasing concerns about health, particularly children's health, the new farm bill is also likely to provide new direct subsidies for specialty crops.

While still a small fraction of the money spent on direct payments to large-scale producers of corn, soybeans and wheat, the sum is expected to be almost five times what it was in the 2002 farm bill.

Still, the new farm bill is expected to leave much of the current subsidy system in place, along with the restrictions on specialty crops, despite the increasing demand for new acreage for locally grown fruits and vegetables.

The pressure is particularly acute in Minnesota, a major farm state with a thriving local and organic food scene as well.

"We're lucky enough to be right off the coast of the highest concentration of organic farms in the country," said Barth Anderson of Minneapolis' Wedge Co-op, the largest single-site consumer co-op in the nation. Many of the store's growers, including Hedin, are in the bluff country of southwest Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota.

A region of hills and valleys, it is perfect for lots of little farms. And there is ample evidence their market is growing.

"There are a lot more people selling directly to consumers than there were five or 10 years ago," said Paul Hugunin, who coordinates the Minnesota Grown program for the state Department of Agriculture. The program currently lists 675 locations where consumers can buy locally grown food in Minnesota, compared with 531 in 2002. The number of farmers markets has grown from 45 to 85 in that time as well.

But as the fresh food market thrives, growers such as Hedin say they will have to pay more to expand: "We're always struggling to find good farmland."

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753

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