April 10, 2018
There was a lot to celebrate last week at the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program’s (SARE) Our Farms, Our Future conference in St. Louis, MO. For one, SARE and the Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas (ATTRA) program were celebrating their 30th anniversaries and all the amazing accomplishments each program had helped to make possible over the last three decades. Not so coincidentally, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which helped to develop SARE and was in attendance at the conference, is also celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Celebrations didn’t stop with anniversary best wishes and reflections on work past, however. SARE, and indeed the entire sustainable agriculture community, were also celebrating a very recent victory – Congress had just passed an omnibus appropriations bill providing a 30 percent increase in funding (bringing SARE funding to a total $35 million, its highest level ever). This much-needed increase in funds is something for which NSAC has long advocated, and we thank the members of the House and Senate appropriations committee for choosing to invest in this keystone competitive grants research program and in the future of sustainable agriculture.
While celebration was an important aspect of the conference, the real focus was on evaluating where sustainable agriculture stands today, and plotting a course for where attendees wanted to see American agriculture 30 years from now.
SARE is an incredibly unique program, the first within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to focus exclusively on sustainable agriculture. Since its creation, USDA has increasingly embraced sustainable agriculture’s methods as ones that are profitable, environmentally sound, and good for food producing communities. This year, as we celebrate SARE’s 30th anniversary, it is important for all sustainable agriculture advocates to engage in debate and dialogue about how we can continue blazing the path toward a more sustainable agriculture system over the next 30 years.
The Our Farms, Our Future conference brought together over 900 farmers, researchers, and advocates for four days of panel discussions, breakout sessions, poster session, networking, film screenings, and farm tours.
Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Steve Censky kicked off the conference with a keynote speech, which was then followed by an engaging panel featuring Censky and former Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden discussing what’s in store for the next 30 years of sustainable agriculture. It was a testament to the great work of SARE over the last several decades that two such distinguished guests came to open the conference and provide robust dialogue about the future of sustainable agriculture.
The breakout sessions were informative and engaging, covering a wide range of issues including subjects like how to help beginning farmers secure land, the latest cover cropping techniques, and efficient irrigation techniques. Attendees had more than 30 options for breakout sessions over the course of the conference; with so many great options, choosing just one for each slot was incredibly difficult!
In addition to the breakout sessions, there were also several incredibly informative panel events. One of the standout panels was led by sourcing experts from Unilever and General Mills, as well as the Executive Director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. Each of the panelists discussed how their organizations are currently working with farmers and local/regional food systems, and also discussed how they could continue to advance sustainability through consumer and community driven initiatives.
The closing panel of the conference was also particularly noteworthy. Four diverse farmers from across the country discussed their perspectives on the next 30 years of sustainable agriculture. The panelists also gave the audience insights into the particular challenges they each faced when they were getting started in agriculture, and gave solid advice for beginning farmers looking to break into the industry.
Throughout the conference, SARE staff recorded commentary from luminaries in the sustainable agriculture field for their new podcast series, which is done in the style of NPR’s StoryCorps. The first podcast has now been posted and is publicly available; SARE plans to publish up to 25 more podcast episodes.
Among the presenters during the SARE conference were NSAC’s own Senior Strategic Advisor, Ferd Hoefner, along with Margaret Krome of the NSAC member organization, the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. Together, Hoefner and Krome led a session, Federal Policy and Sustainable Agriculture: Looking Ahead, walking the over 150 attendees through both the appropriations and the farm bill processes.
Hoefner and Krome explained how, for instance, years of persistent analysis and advocacy led to the historic $35 million appropriation to SARE. This increase was a monumental victory for sustainable agriculture advocates, representing a 30 percent increase over last year’s funding levels – the largest one year increase in the program’s history and the largest single fiscal year (FY) 2018 increase of all the programs administered by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture – and an 82% increase since FY 2012. NSAC believes that this record-level appropriation is a sign that Congress understands the immense value of SARE and its contribution to the economic, environmental and social sustainability of agriculture. Moreover, we hope this is a signal that in the coming years SARE will finally be appropriated at its full authorized level of $60 million.
Hoefner and Krome also walked attendees through the coming 2018 Farm Bill process, profiling some of the key issues, important marker bills, and best practices for advocacy asks.
The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), an NSAC member organization, was also represented at the conference. NYFC presented the film Farmers for America, for which they are a National Outreach Partner. This riveting film profiles a series of young farmers as they get their operations up and running, and shows how the next generation is stepping up to the plate to change the face of American agriculture for the better.
The Our Farms, Our Future conference brought together farmers, scientists, policy experts, extension agents, and advocates across non-profit community for an important discussion not just about the next 30 years of SARE, but also to form a shared vision for the next 30 years. Given Congress’ 30 percent increase in funding to SARE, we at NSAC are optimistic for the future of sustainable agriculture research. We hope that the SARE Regional Administrative Council (AC) members in attendance also left the conference feeling optimistic, and that they are energized and emboldened to carry on the conversations of the conference with their fellow AC members.
We applaud SARE for their decades of achievement, and look forward to another great event – and hopefully many more victories for sustainable agriculture – in another 30 years.