The “Farm Bill,” as the omnibus package of federal farm and food legislation is known, represents billions of dollars in government expenditures that set the farm, food, and rural policy goals and priorities for the United States. Congress passed the most recent version of the farm bill—the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (H.R. 2419; Public Law 110-234)—on June 18, 2008, authorizing nearly $300 billion in direct, mandatory spending over the next five years, approximately two-thirds of which supports the food stamp and associated nutrition programs. The bill continues, with small modifications, the long history of agricultural commodity programs (food and feed grains, oilseeds, and cotton), while also providing increases in mandatory spending for conservation, renewable energy, fruit and vegetable production, and organic farming. Very modest funding is also provided for research and rural development.
Despite the Farm Bill’s impressive price-tag, there is ample evidence that U.S. farm policy has not achieved its stated goals of fostering a family farm system of agriculture, ensuring that farmers receive a fair return in an unstable market, and conserving natural resources. This failure is apparent across America’s agricultural landscape. The number of independent family farmers on the land has plummeted, as farms and ranches have been forced out by high land prices. Obstacles are preventing the next generation from farming, with farmers over the age of 65 outnumbering those below the age of 35 by more than two to one. Agriculture is the leading source of pollution in the nation’s rivers and lakes, and the U.S. is losing soil ten times faster than the natural replenishment rate, costing the nation billions of dollars each year in productivity loss. These failures threaten the very future of farming, rural communities, watersheds, and our fundamental ability to feed ourselves.
But these problems and trends are not inevitable. They are the direct result of policy choices that have encouraged concentration, short-term corporate profit, and production at any cost over long-term sustainability and health. Re-shaping policies so that they serve the needs of family farms, rural communities, and the environment is critical to re-balancing power and restoring the capacity of our agricultural system for self-renewal.
On behalf of a movement that includes grassroots sustainable farming organizations, family farmers, conservationists, rural advocates, and food activists, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has fought to re-shape federal farm policies for more than twenty years. NSAC believes that strategic grassroots mobilization around federal farm policy reform is critical to attaining a future where family farms, rural communities, and the environment are healthy and resilient.
To this end, NSAC has fought for and won new programs in every one of the last four farm bills that aim to restore balance and shift taxpayer support toward the public good: policies that encourage existing farmers to transition to organic and other sustainable methods, policies that remove obstacles to entering into an agricultural livelihood for the next generation of sustainable farmers, policies that expand conservation practices on land that is in agricultural production, and policies that promote healthy food systems and sustainable development.
The most recent Farm Bill demonstrates that NSAC’s ongoing fight is one that requires a long-term commitment. No single farm bill and no single policy change will solve all of our problems. But the policy wins secured by NSAC members in the 2008 Farm Bill represent billions of dollars for land stewardship and hundreds of millions of dollars for new farmers, new markets, organic producers, rural entrepreneurship, and public research. Together, these wins represent significant strides in the right direction.
Securing new policies and programs in the Farm Bill is just the first step. NSAC’s legislative gains in the 2008 Farm Bill will not be realized without vigilant attention to the other critical phases of the policy-making cycle, including administrative implementation and annual appropriations. Most important is making sure that information about new Farm Bill programs gets out to farmers, ranchers, and community-based organizations so that they can benefit from them.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill is a resource to help farmers, ranchers, rural entrepreneurs, conservationists, and rural and urban community-based organizations take advantage of what the Farm Bill programs have to offer. The Grassroots Guide is also a source of information for ongoing opportunities to participate in the policy-making process, so that the sustainable agriculture movement can continue to grow more powerful and have a voice in shaping better policies.