Organic Broadcaster

2018 Farm Bill offers chance to encourage sustainable, organic farming
By Sarah Hackney, NSAC

 

It’s that time again—time for Congress to begin working on a new federal farm bill. This process takes place roughly every five years and sets the ”rules of the road” for much of our food and farming system, including many sustainable and organic farming policy issues.

The 2014 Farm Bill under which we’re operating today contains policies, programs, and funding levels that affect everything from who is eligible for farm loans to what types of organic crops can be insured, as well as support for farmers markets and food hubs. While formal debate is unlikely to begin before early 2018, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have already begun listening sessions in the field and hearings in Washington D.C. to inform the next bill, which must be passed by September 2018 to avoid major disruptions to food and farm programs.

The road to a new farm bill is likely to be a winding one. Early indications suggest that the key players in the process—House and Senate Republicans and Democrats on the Agriculture Committees, the White House, and Congressional leadership—have different perspectives on the highest-cost components of the bill, including SNAP (food stamps), crop insurance, and commodity programs. Billions of dollars will be at stake, not just for these major programs, but also for initiatives that help farmers conserve natural resources, expand their operations, transition to organic production, and much more.

When it comes to organics, there are likely to be a whole host of specific proposals, including: improving how working lands conservation programs (like EQIP and CSP) work for organic producers; improving crop insurance options for organic producers; increasing funding for organic research; encouraging organic transition with certification cost-share, and more.

Here’s a broad preview of key issues for sustainable and organic ag likely to come up during the farm bill debate in 2017 and 2018—and how you can have a say in the process.

 

Comprehensive Conservation Title Reform

Privately-owned crop, pasture, and rangeland account for nearly half of land in the U.S. Given the enormity of agriculture’s footprint—combined with the fact that these “working lands” intersect with shared natural resources like rivers and lakes—it makes sense that farmers and ranchers would have a significant role to play in sustaining our nation’s natural resources. The new farm bill is an opportunity to invest in programs that help farmers and ranchers implement and enhance conservation systems on their operations—and make sure these programs are increasingly accessible, transparent, and outcomes-based. Through the next farm bill, we have an opportunity to ensure that federal conservation programs and requirements:

  • Expand program access to serve farmers of all types, sizes, and geography, including small and mid-sized farms and organic, diversified, and rotational grazing operations;
  • Enhance impact by targeting dollars to the most effective conservation activities;
  • Increase support for planning and outreach to assist farmers and create smoother links between programs, and practice delivery and implementation;
  • Increase effectiveness and efficiency through enhanced monitoring and evaluation of program outcomes.

 

Beginning Farmers and Ranchers

Our nation’s farmers and ranchers are aging, and many of them will reach retirement without a succession plan in place that ensures the ongoing viability and vitality of their operations. At the same time, aspiring farmers nationwide are facing significant barriers to success in agriculture, including the limited availability of affordable and desirable farmland, difficulty in obtaining credit and financing, and inadequate access to hands-on training and risk management tools.

Nearly 100 million acres of farmland (enough to support nearly 250,000 family farms) is set to change hands over the next five years—during the course of our next farm bill. To keep our agricultural economy strong, we must facilitate the transfer of skills, knowledge, and land between the current and future generations of family farmers. We must also ensure that our federal policies create an agricultural system that not only feeds families at home and abroad, but also feeds farmers by providing them with a sustainable career option that can support their families, rural communities, and our natural resources for generations to come. The farm bill can help—we need it to:

  • Expand beginning farmers’ access to affordable farmland;
  • Empower new farmers with the skills to succeed in today’s agricultural economy;
  • Ensure equitable access to financial capital and federal crop insurance;
  • Create a new generation to steward our land by incentivizing conservation from the start.

 

Investing in Regional Food Economies

Consumer demand for local and regional products is on the rise, and this growing interest in the “farm to fork” pipeline is opening new markets and economic opportunities to farmers and food producers across the nation. These have long been part of the social and economic fabric for some American communities, but today interest in developing these systems is more widespread than ever. With the American farm economy in downturn and commodity prices at historic lows, family farmers nationwide have increasingly found that local and regional food pipelines can help them create big economic opportunities close to home.

Despite the serious potential created by this growing consumer demand, many would-be food and farm entrepreneurs struggle to enter the local/regional marketplace. A lack of infrastructure (e.g., storage, transportation, and processing capacity) and technical links (e.g., marketing and business planning) have made it difficult for many farmers and producers to update their businesses to reach these new customer bases. By helping to connect the dots between producers and local customers, the next farm bill can:

  • Help farmers reach new markets through outreach, cost-share, and technical assistance programs;
  • Increase access to fresh, healthy, local food among low-income groups and communities in need;
  • Develop new and strengthen existing infrastructure that connects producers to consumers.

 

Securing Seeds

Everything in agriculture starts with seeds. Seeds are the building blocks of our food system, and farmers require seed stocks that are regionally adapted to meet their needs and farming conditions.

Historically, control over our national seed stocks and breeding research laid in the hands of our country’s farmers and land-grant institutions. However, over the last several decades, the development of our seeds stocks, the foundation of our national food supply, has become increasingly consolidated and privatized. Innovation and growth has been stifled and our national seed stocks and breeding research have become less diverse. Farmers are natural innovators and know best what kind of performance and traits they need from their seeds and crops. By supporting farmer-driven plant breeding research, we can better ensure that all farmers have access to high performing, locally-adapted seeds—no matter where they farm or what they grow. The farm bill can help to:

  • Encourage research and crop diversity to ensure the security and sustainability of the American food system;
  • Expand quality seed options, giving farmers the freedom to choose what and how to grow;
  • Improve coordination and transparency among research and breeding programs to make more informed and strategic public and private investments.

 

Crop Insurance Reform

Because of the important role farming plays in our lives and our economy, it is in the public interest to help protect farmers against risk. There are many approaches to managing risk, including crop, enterprise, and market diversification, plus investing in soil health and conservation. However, current federal policy on agricultural risk management focuses primarily on taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance. In fact, subsidized crop insurance is now the largest federal farm safety net program.

Federal crop insurance is an important cornerstone of the farm safety net, but it must be improved to better serve all of America’s farmers equitably. Currently, the federal crop insurance program excludes many types of farms and farmers, discourages sustainable practices, and encourages farm consolidation that further depopulates our rural communities.

As we gear up for the 2018 Farm Bill, we have an opportunity to include improvements to the federal crop insurance program that will make it more effective, efficient, and transparent. These changes include:

  • Expand access to serve all types of farmers based on their risk management needs.
  • Actively promote conservation by eliminating barriers to sustainable farming practices and rewarding practices that protect our land, water and health.
  • Reform the structure of the crop insurance program so that it no longer provides unlimited subsidies that fuel farm consolidation or unduly influences farmers’ planting decisions.
  • Improve the delivery of the crop insurance program to make it more transparent and efficient.

 

What You Can Do

Farmers and the broader food and farm movement have a huge role to play in the coming farm bill. It will take all of us speaking up for positive change to make it happen. To start, you can learn who your legislators are. If any of your Senators or Representative sits on an Agriculture Committee, he or she will be taking a leading role in drafting the next bill and needs to hear from you.

Attend field hearings and Town Halls—
members of Congress will be on recess for all of August and again for Labor Day, and are likely to hold Town Halls and other public events. Show up and ask for a farm bill that includes issues that matter to you!

Share your story. Have you benefited from a farm bill program on your farm, or at your organization or business? Consider sharing your story with your members of Congress and asking them to support the program that has helped you. For example: did EQIP help you install improved fencing? Did a Farmers Market Promotion Program grant help your market increase sales? These are great stories for your member of Congress to hear.

Call your legislators! MOSES, NSAC, and many other organizations will be putting out the call to action as soon as this fall for folks to call their legislators’ D.C. offices in support of a farm bill that invests in sustainable and organic agriculture. Calling takes only 90 seconds and makes a real difference. Stay tuned for many more
opportunities to get involved.

 

Sarah Hackney is the Grassroots Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

 

From the July | August 2017 Issue

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