- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Crates of cucumbers overflow onto the antique phonograph; boxes of zucchini nearly seal the wood-burning fireplace; and snap peas tumble from baskets onto bedsheets along the hardwood floors.

Each weekend from May to October, farmer Mary James blasts her air conditioning, stuffs a blanket under the door and turns her living room into cold storage for the vegetables going to her three dozen home-delivery clients.

“With the ceiling fan on and the AC to 60, it keeps my vegetables all right,” says Mrs. James, co-proprietor with her husband, Nelson, of the 35-acre Dogwood Farms in Maple Hill, N.C. “But it froze me. I had to come out.”

Like many small farmers, Mrs. James dreams of sharing her fresh fruit and vegetables with every dinner table within reach. Without cold storage, which would cost $10,000 to $20,000, her cooperative can’t grow enough to supply those demands.

Help may soon be on the way for Mrs. James and for Americans who crave fresh-from-the-field produce. Congress is considering $500 million worth of proposals to boost farmers markets, home delivery programs and other direct farmer-to-consumer programs.

The proposals could have a big impact on the American dinner table. In addition to boosting farmers markets, the measures would give small farmers better access to schools and other government institutions and pay for equipment that would turn their pigs into pork chops, their fruit into jams and their greens into prepackaged salad mixes.

That, in turn, would mean more fresh, local ingredients in American mouths.

Blueberry farmer Amy Phelps is hoping the money will fund a $12,000 commercial kitchen to help her and fellow farmers transform their crops into profitable artisanal products. Crunched by local competition, Miss Phelps turned her first profit in 2005 after turning her farm into a “U-Pick” and advertising at a New Orleans jazz festival — dressed as a giant blueberry.

“We would sell jam, eggplant tapenade, homemade pickles,” says Miss Phelps, of Lumberton, Miss. “I know people who make these amazing things, but they can’t get them to market. There aren’t any community kitchens where you can do that.”

Supporters of the small-farm measures are hoping to insert them into the new farm bill, the sprawling legislation that governs farm spending. Renewed every five to seven years, the legislation primarily benefits corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton — thanks largely to the political influence of lobby groups. Those crops gobble up the lion’s share of subsidy payments to farmers, which totaled nearly $18 billion last year.

This year, money to help small local farmers has plenty of support in Congress. Most of the programs under discussion were launched in the 2002 farm bill but would be increased this time from tens of millions to roughly half a billion dollars. Champions of large-scale agriculture say they won’t get in the way.

“It doesn’t make sense to get into a catfight because these people have a place, too, and politically it’s not worth it,” says Rep. Marion Berry, an Arkansas Democrat whose district derives 90 percent of its jobs from rice, cotton and soybean farming.

Supporters say that kind of money could change the way we eat as much as the legislation and money that sparked feverish growth in the organic industry, from an estimated $1 billion in 1990 to $14.6 billion in 2005.

The average fruit or vegetable in America now travels 1,500 miles to your table. As the country has shifted to large-scale farming, infrastructure like cold storage facilities, slaughterhouses and community kitchens that once helped smaller farmers prepare their food for market has been replaced by a sophisticated distribution chain that squeezes them out.

As home cooks embrace the celebrity chef creed of “fresh and local,” the number of farmers markets in this country has more than doubled, from fewer than 2,000 in 1994 to more than 4,000 today.

Supporters of local agriculture say reducing the “food miles” traveled by what we eat will retain more nutrients, help the environment, reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil and create a less centralized food chain, with less risk of widespread disease or terrorism.

A boom in farmers markets could also put pressure on big retailers to carry local goods, as buyers begin asking for them.

Several supermarket chains have already responded to the public’s interest in local food, with major retailers including Giant Food Stores and Safeway selling locally grown food in some places. Natural-food giant Whole Foods carries locally produced goods, and after widely publicized criticism of the distances traveled by its organic produce, agreed to spend $10 million annually on low-interest loans for local growers.

As things stand now, Mrs. James and the 30 even smaller farmers in her cooperative mostly sell their products from the back of their pickup trucks, a strategy called “tailgate marketing.”

“Right now, even if schools came to us, we couldn’t serve them, because we don’t have storage, and it would just rot in the fields,” she says.

If these proposals go through, supporters say, it will be an important step toward helping small, local farmers inch their way into the mainstream and onto the average American dinner plate.

“If we can get these programs funded properly in the farm bill, you’d see more of them in more communities all across the country,” says Ralph Grossi, president of the preservation group American Farmland Trust. “It generates new hope for farmers who want to produce for local consumers and gives us a reason to preserve the open lands around our cities, so the opportunity to continue to produce exists in the future.”