To kick off her North Florida Farm Tour, Congresswoman Gwen Graham is delving into the experiences of modern farmers.
Graham hosted a town hall style meeting Tuesday to discuss the status of local agriculture. Farmers spoke of the age-old challenges they face: tight budgets and bad weather. Therus Brown is a student at FAMU, and works on his family’s farm.
“Someone mentioned earlier, you can lose your shirt, you can lose your paycheck in a matter of minutes. Rain comes in and sets on the field and you ain’t gonna have no hay. Peanuts rot off, things of that nature,” he said.
Besides toiling under the hot sun, there are new concerns as well: climate change, pollution and an aging farmer population. Vonda Richardson oversees the coop extension program ate FAMU. She says farming is a hard sell in modern America.
“In the African American community primarily it’s the stigma of farming. A lot of the young people don’t want to go into it because they don’t see that it could be a lucrative career,” she said.
According to the US Agricultural Census, there are half as many farmers today as there were in 1950. As younger generations leave the family farm, the burden of feeding the country is spread across fewer shoulders. But local and state agencies are encouraging young people, women and veterans to fill in the gap. James Hill served in the military for two decades before he and his wife took up the proverbial plow.
“We put in our first garden three years ago and it just produced abundantly. And we were able to feed ourselves and our friends and family and we shared. And over the past three years we just fell in love and we realized there’s a calling here. And we started seeing gaps and opportunities here, to farm,” he said.
And Congresswoman Gwen Graham wants to help fill those gaps. At the meeting Tuesday, Graham announced that thirteen counties in North Florida are now covered by the US Department of Agriculture’s Strike Force Program. The USDA’s Krysta Harden says the program supports rural and impoverished areas.
“It’s a concentrated, focused way to leverage federal dollars, USDA programs, on certain areas that meet criteria that are persistent poverty, that have great need, that have an agricultural community, a rural community that need special help and care," she said.
Thirteen of the fourteen counties in Graham’s congressional district are now covered by the program. Graham says the collaboration will be a boon for North Florida farmers.
“The 2nd congressional district is the most rural district in Florida so we have a lot of opportunities here to work closely together with USDA to help bring resources, consolidate, bring people together to help those here in North Florida,” she said.
Glyen Holmes, one of the town hall panelists, grew up on a farm in Mississippi. With decades of experience in agriculture, Holmes says farmers have to adapt to survive.
“We always say in Mississippi, if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got. What I want to get out to this today, and the question you were asking is, let’s think outside of the box a little bit,” he said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, farmers make up about 1% of the US population. The agency expects that number to continue to drop.