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Our Turn: New England agriculture gets a new voice in D.C.

New Hampshire may have a new all-women dream team representing it in Congress, but forging a path for women may not be their only opportunity. Flying under the radar is the fact that 2nd District Rep. Annie Kuster is now a member of the House Agriculture Committee, the first representative from New Hampshire in many years.

While it may seem an odd match for a state not known for agriculture, it is really indicative of how local, sustainable agriculture is on the rise in our region. Kuster’s seat on this committee is an opportunity for the agricultural community of New England and for area consumers whose interest in knowing more about their food has been steadily mounting. Now more than ever, people are becoming more connected with the source of their food and recognizing that what they eat is closely linked to their health, as well as to the health of the environment and their local communities.

This heightened consumer awareness is helping to keep New England farms in business, especially the hundreds of organic dairies in the region. Not only are these dairy farms an iconic part of our New England landscape, but they are also a critically important part of our local economy.

On the political front, we see evidence of the growing importance of New England agriculture in the establishment and growth of the New England Farmers Union. The diverse membership of this group, from century-old family farms to young urban farmers, is a testament to the surge in the region’s interest in producing and eating local, sustainable food and the need for advocating for policies that better serve our farmers.

New Hampshire’s agricultural economy is small in comparison with other states, but it still accounts for nearly $1 billion in economic activity and thousands of jobs. It also helps conserve our landscapes, both farm and forest. Well-managed farm and forestland contribute to improved soil health and water quality, and provide wildlife habitat and recreational use. Federal farm programs that support better management on these lands are essential to maintaining these benefits.

One of the first orders of business Kuster will have to deal with is the farm bill, which affects New Hampshire and New England in ways we rarely hear about. It’s critical to our region’s conservation and forestry programs, and it also holds the key to nutrition initiatives that will help families in need get greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen the introduction of a variety of farm bill programs that would really help our area. They focus on organic agriculture and fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as beginning farmers and ranchers. Programs designed to help build local food systems really help our area. Unfortunately, Congress gutted all of these programs, including the nation’s largest conservation program, when it extended the farm bill as part of the fiscal cliff deal passed early this year.

This year Congress has a chance to reauthorize this bill, restore funding for these critical programs, and make much needed reforms to the farm safety net. While this won’t be easy, especially in light of the need to reduce the federal deficit, it’s never been more important for Congress to deliver a farm bill that meets the needs of both consumers and agriculture. A more regionally diverse agriculture committee is sure to do a better job of this than one that is stacked with members from the Corn Belt.

We’re counting on Kuster to make hay of this opportunity.

(Britt Lundgren is director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield Farm Inc. in Londonderry. Roger Noonan is president of the New England Farmers Union and an organic farmer in New Boston.)

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