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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Commission Launches Campaign to Help Small Farms

LAS CRUCES - A national commission appointed to look at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) policies and practices for small farm operators and poor farmers has gone a step further. Some commission members, including New Mexico State University's Edmund Gomez, have formed a "Time to Act" campaign to help small farms stay in business.

In 1997, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman appointed the National Commission on Small Farms to review USDA's current policies for small farms and to determine a course of action to respond to their needs.

"We identified eight different policy goals taken from public input from across the country that affect the small farming industry," Gomez said. "From these eight policy goals, 146 recommendations were submitted for USDA's consideration in policy changes last year."

Twenty four of the 29 commission members felt that not enough effort was being made to comply with the recommendations. After giving USDA three more months to take action, they formed a committee on their own and issued a report this year.

The report, "A Time to Act," was an attempt to nudge USDA into doing something about small farm issues, said Gomez, director of the Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project (RAIPAP) with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

The report gave the USDA the following grades: a D for market access; B+, market development; C, research and Extension; C+, conservation; C, credit; B, support for beginning farmers; D, farm workers; C, civil rights; B, risk management; and C+, outreach and organization.

"This is a critical step because 20 years ago, we had 300,000 more farmers than we have now," Gomez said. "Farmers are receiving 13 percent less today for every consumer dollar, and four firms now control more than 80 percent of the beef market."

About 94 percent of the nations farms are small, but they only receive 41 percent of all farm receipts, he said. From 1910 to 1990, the share of the agricultural economy received by farmers dropped from 21 percent to 5 percent.

New Mexico follows the same trend as the rest of the country, Gomez said. The state's small farms have been declining and losing profits during the last 20 years.

RAIPAP, which is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, was initiated in 1991 to help families who depend on small farming operations to make a living in 11 of New Mexico's northern counties. Headquartered at NMSU's Sustainable Agricultural Science Center at Alcalde, the project teaches rural residents and small business owners management skills to start, expand or improve their operations.

Over the years, RAIPAP has helped more than 3,000 families through educational programs that range from nutrition to beef cattle management, Gomez said. It has helped more than 1,200 families with food processing, marketing and packaging.

The "Time to Act" campaign is gaining momentum throughout the country, Gomez said. People involved hope to prevent problems like the ones hog farmers are having with low prices, which may force many of them out of business this year.

"Agricultural organizations are starting to mobilize in the South, Southwest, Midwest and on the East Coast," Gomez said. "We received more than 600 letters from across the country. These small farm operators and ranchers are saying, 'We want to survive. We want to stay in business.'"

Small farms contribute more than farm production to society, he said. They embody a diversity of ownership, culture, traditions, landscapes and cropping systems."

The majority of the country's farmland is managed by a large number of small farm operators, Gomez said. They significantly help the environment through soil, water and wildlife management.

Family farms also serve as nurturing environments for children and offer self-employment and economic opportunities for people in rural communities, he added.