FREDERICKSBURG FREE LANCE-STAR, SCOTT SHENK
With the federal farm bill set to expire soon, Rep. Abigail Spanberger continues to make the rounds with Virginia farmers as the member of the House Agriculture Committee gathers information for the five-year update of the program.
Last updated in 2018, the farm bill—legislation focused on farms, conservation, rural development, forestry, nutrition, and agriculture research and education—is set to expire on Sept. 30.
Spanberger, whose district includes Fredericksburg as well as Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline, Culpeper, Orange and King George counties, started a tour of five farms Tuesday morning at the picturesque Newmarket Plantation in Caroline. She was joined by her staff and representatives with Colonial Farm Credit and the Virginia Farm Bureau.
The congresswoman said she was visiting the farms to get a better idea about what should be in the updated farm bill. Spanberger also visited numerous other farms earlier this year, along with hosting the Farm Bill Summit in Caroline.
The farm bill covers a wide range of important aspects of farming and nutrition in the U.S. The package of legislation arising from the farm bill impacts how food is grown and what kinds of food are grown. The bill also determines such things as crop insurance for farmers, training and sustainable practices.
During her visit to Newmarket Plantation, Spanberger spent more than half an hour talking with Robby Caruthers, who runs the family farm. He and his wife, Ada, have owned the plantation since 1998.
They grow a wide variety of vegetables—including corn, tomatoes, squash, broccoli, cabbage, greens, peppers—on the 450-acre farm.
The 60-year-old Caruthers said he’s been farming all his life and pointed out that being able to adapt has proven crucial to surviving in an already tough industry, one that has been hit by rising costs to do business in recent years.
The Caruthers’ farm is part of a program that delivers vegetables to Virginia stores. He said his vegetables are sold at grocery stores, such as Food Lion and Kroger, and restaurants, mostly in the Richmond and Virginia Beach areas.
Caruthers told the congresswoman he can compete in a local market, but not in a global market where vegetables can be grown in Mexico and exported to the U.S. and sold for less because of that country’s low wages and costs.
Spanberger asked Caruthers what he thinks are keys to the farm bill.
He believes conservation programs—aimed at utilizing more environmentally friendly practices—should remain voluntary. Spanberger agreed.
Caruthers said he follows the conservation program—filing a nutrient management plan annually, using cover crops, buffer zones to keep soil from washing into the river basin, and recently the farm started using bees as pollinators.
Spanberger asked why he continues to work in the federal conservation program.
“The benefits,” Caruthers said.
He said the conservation program includes techniques that improve the farm’s approach, such as the use of cover crops. Farmers who use the cover crops can take part in a federal cost-share program through the farm bill.
Caruthers said the cover crop approach improves “fertility” and “you’re cutting your erosion pretty much to zero. You’re harnessing some nutrients that you lost over the winter.”
Caruthers said crop insurance is another important aspect of the farm bill.
“A big player for us,” the farmer said of the insurance program. He said they had a good year in 2022, with good weather. If things had gone poorly, though, “it would’ve been bad” because the insurance wouldn’t have covered the increase in costs to run the farm.
He said costs are coming down, but are still too high. He added that the supply chain continues to be “horrible.”
“Crop insurance is really important to us. Really important factor in the farm bill,” he said.
Agriculture lending is also important to farmers, Caruthers said. The farm bill includes a program that makes it easier for farmers to borrow money.
“This is not a game anymore,” Caruthers said. He noted that his “fertilizer bill, as we speak, is a half-million dollars. And we’re not a giant operation. There is a lot of exposure. This is a serious business.”
He also pointed out the use of technology, which is expensive and “overwhelming.”
After the talk with Caruthers and a short tour, Spanberger said in an interview that this is the first time she has gotten a chance to work on the farm bill, and she highlighted the importance of meeting farmers and others who use the federally funded programs to learn what works and what doesn’t.
“Hearing really specific stories, seeing how these programs are actually implemented on the ground, helps me do my job on Capitol Hill,” she said. “It’s more than text on a page in the legislation. It’s real programs implemented to support and help real producers who use these programs.”