NSAC's Blog

Guest Post: Climbers and Farm Policy

November 3, 2020

Photo credit: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post that originally appeared on Farm To Crag’s blog. Farm To Crag is a climber-driven nonprofit that inspires climbers to invest in sustainable, locally-grown foods wherever we climb. We believe that when climbers invest in local organic regenerative agriculture — one meal at a time — we demonstrate the power we have to improve our individual wellness while stimulating vibrant local economies and nurturing a resilient environment resistant to climate change. Written by Juli Obudzinski, NSAC Deputy Policy Director.

Why Climbers Should Care about Farm Policy

I’ve only recently discovered climbing, but I’ve been eating my entire life. My story is similar to so many other climbers who see the inherent connection between our love of climbing and the outdoors, and our love for the food that fuels our bodies. We understand the responsibility we have to care for both our bodies and our planet. As an inherently outdoor sport, climbers are integrally connected with nature. Part of making sure our footprint is as light as possible on the vistas we seek is to better understand how other choices we make that support our climbing also impact our world — and its future. 

Just think about it for a minute. Out of the roughly 2.4 billion acres in the United States, 715 million acres (29%) are considered “protected areas” — which includes public parks and other protected outdoor spaces climbers cherish. When factoring in farmland, this adds another 900 million acres (37%) — which doesn’t even include publicly owned land used for grazing of livestock. While our most direct impacts come from the places we physically spend the most time (at home or at the crag), we are inescapably connected to the land that sustains us.

Each time we spend our food dollars, we have a choice to make about what kind of food system we want to support and see in this world. Everytime we buy locally, or opt for the organic brand, we are literally investing in a more sustainable food system. And while individual choices about the food we buy — whether on the road or at home — are fundamental, they do not happen in a vacuum. Like it or not, the government plays a big part in shaping the kind of food and farming system we have today.

The State of our Food System

While there are many bright spots and glimmers of hope that change is possible, our national and global food system is broken in many ways. Our waterways (and marine life) are being poisoned by excess fertilizers and agricultural runoff. Genetic diversity of plants, animals, fungi, and bacterium is being threatened from overuse and over-reliance on toxic pesticides. Over the past century, we’ve seen an unprecedented level of consolidation in farm country: not only are there fewer farms today than there were 50 years ago, but today’s farms are much larger than generations that came before (see chart below).

But the fault lines in our food system aren’t confined to just the food we eat. Ripple effects from how we grow our food and manage land and natural resources also impact our public health, the vibrancy of our urban and rural communities, and our nation’s ability to combat pressing threats like climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. 

Despite all this gloom and doom, there are glimmers of hope. More and more farmers are transitioning to organic production methods. There are more farmers selling directly into schools and institutions than ever before. Over the past 25 years, the number of farmers markets has more than quadrupled, and there are now over 8,000 farmers markets nationwide. Sales of sustainably-raised meat and dairy is on the rise, and consumers are increasingly demanding more transparency and higher standards for the food they consume. 

Like it or not, the laws and policies we enact at the state, local, and federal level all play a critical role in shaping the food and farming system we have today. If the climbing and broader outdoor community really wants to support a more sustainable and resilient food system, we’ve got to go back to the basics and understand why we have the system we have today. I’m not going to lie; policy conversations can be dense (and I’ll admit, sometimes boring). But there’s no escaping the impact that policy has on our every day lives — especially eating!

If you’ve ever been curious what the farm bill is all about or what a food policy council actually does, or how your elected officials vote when it comes to food, read on! And while this post only skims the surface, there are plenty of resources for those policy wonks who want a deeper dive or learn more about how to get more engaged in policy conversations.

Farm Policy 101

You really can’t talk about food and farm policy without talking about the farm bill. Sure, there are other pieces of legislation that govern aspects of our food system, but the farm bill remains the single most important piece of legislation at the national level that shapes what and how farmers grow the food that sustains us. 

But first, a little bit of history. The first farm bill dates way back to the 1930s, when the country was reeling from the economic impacts of the Great Depression. To make matters worse, farmers were also struggling with the impacts of the Dust Bowl, which were largely preventable and manmade (for more on dust bowl history, I highly recommend Ken Burns documentary series, The Dust Bowl). 

Dust storm, Texas 1935. Photo credit: George E. Marsh

The passage of the first farm bill — The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 — marks the first time the government intervened in farming in any major way. The immediate need of these early pieces of farm legislation was to stabilize farmer income and livelihoods, while also addressing rampant unemployment and poverty across the country. However, out of these initial farm policy laws, came some ideas and institutions that still remain today. For example, the creation of what we now know as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) dates back to 1936 in response to the unsustainable farming practices that led to massive soil erosion that caused what we know as the Dust Bowl. 

Since the 1930s, Congress has revisited farm policy roughly every 5 years or so in order to tweak programs and policies to respond to the emerging challenges and economic trends facing agriculture. Nutrition and anti-hunger programs (like “food stamps”) were added to the farm bill in the late 1970s, and now make up 76 percent of farm bill spending (see chart below). 

Source: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

While each farm bill contains thousands of pages of programs and policies, there are three primary “farm” slices of the funding pie: Commodities, Crop Insurance, and Conservation programs. Everything else — from research to trade to energy to rural development — makes up the remaining less than one percent.

Collectively, commodity and crop insurance programs are what are commonly referred to as “farm subsidies” in that they subsidize farmers for their production in one way or another. Commodity programs usually pay farmers directly based on their specific prices or yields and are only available for producers of major agricultural commodities (i.e. corn, soy, wheat, peanuts, sugar, dairy). Crop insurance payments are now the single largest slice of the farm pie, and basically help to pay for farmers’ crop insurance, which covers losses from weather, pests, or markets. 

However, here’s where the wonky policy details matter. While crop insurance, for example, is not inherently a bad idea, the way that our federal crop insurance policy has been designed over the years has ended up favoring the largest farms, doling out unlimited checks and promoting inherently unsustainable and risky production practices (like monocropping). 

Currently, taxpayers are on the hook for insurance subsidies no matter how large the farm or how wealthy the farmer. Over time, these policies have led to the consolidation of farmland and has made it harder for newer farmers to compete with larger, more established farms. 

Of course the farm bill does have some programs and policies that help to reverse this trend and build more sustainable and resilient farms. The Conservation Title includes nearly $60 billion dollars (over 10 years) to help farmers adopt regenerative farming practices like cover cropping, rotational grazing, and reducing tillage. Programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) help farmers offset the costs of establishing conservation on their farms.

Over time, there are many other smaller programs and policies that have been added to the farm bill to help chip away at the singular support for large-scale, commodity agriculture. There are now farm bill programs that help establish farmers markets, train new farmers, provide support for farmers of color, help small-scale farmers buy land, pay farmers to do research on sustainable and organic practices, and more!

Want to learn more?

For a deeper dive into the programs in the farm bill that support a more sustainable food system, check out the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs.

If you’re curious about diving deeper into the farm bill, check out these resources at the National Agricultural Law Center and/or the USDA Economic Research Service

In addition to the farm bill, there are other important pieces of legislation at the federal level that impact the way we farm and eat in this country. For example, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990 which created the national organic label that we have today. And more recently, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act which for the first time required farmers to comply with federal food safety guidelines (and nearly put most small farms out of business!). Other current federal policy issues which will certainly have an impact on our food system include policy debates over immigration, climate change, and child nutrition. 

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

While getting a new policy or idea signed into law is an important first step, where the rubber really meets the road is how the government decides to implement these policies that may give  some farmers a leg up and others the short end of the stick. There are countless examples of fights between Congress and the Administration (i.e. USDA) about the Congressional intent behind the legal text that ultimately gets signed into law. 

For example, Congress recently passed several rounds of emergency relief in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and included several billion dollars of funding to help farmers who have lost markets and income as a result. Congress made clear that all farmers should be covered by this emergency relief, including farmers that sell to farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSAs), restaurants or schools. However, in initially designing the program, USDA did so in a way that made it nearly impossible for any of these smaller-scale farmers to receive any benefit from the program. 

Local Policy Matters Too!

In addition to federal policy, policies created at the state and local level also have a hand to play in shaping the kind of food and farming system we want to see. In every state across the country, state legislatures and other elected bodies (like city councils, zoning commissions, and State Departments of Agriculture) have immense flexibility on the types of local policies, initiatives and incentives to prioritize for their communities. 

Some states have established state tax incentives to promote conservation or help make land more affordable and accessible to new farmers. Some cities and local zoning commissions have prioritized making urban and peri-urban land available for agricultural production in order to address local food security. Some city councils and state departments of agriculture have established programs to increase access to healthy food in “food deserts.” Some school boards have prioritized school wellness policies and farm to school programs to help foster a connection between students, agriculture, and healthy eating. 

If federal farm policy seems a bit daunting, there are so many opportunities to help build a more sustainable food system in your own community. As a good first step, many cities have a local food policy council that push for policies that support a healthier, more sustainable food system at the local level. 

Check out more ways you can get engaged in farm and food policy at the local level:

Fresh Organic Corn. Photo Credit: Juli Obudzinski

Change is Possible

At the end of the day, we as climbers have an important role to play in being advocates for all of the wild and beautiful places in this world that allow us to feel the connection with the land that sustains us. It’s heartening to see more of the outdoor community recognize the unique voice and responsibility they have in protecting our natural places. And while we cannot abandon that fight, we need more allies fighting for a more just and sustainable food system alongside those efforts to protect public lands. 

For nearly the past decade, I’ve been “fighting the good fight” in our nation’s capital, and I can tell you from the front lines, we need more help. As the number of people directly engaged in farming has dwindled over the years, the impact of agriculture and our food system has grown exponentially. That means there are fewer voices shouting down the halls of Congress for policies that support farmers — and most of them are those that are profiting off (or have designed) the current system. 

All of these issues are influenced in large part due to policy decisions made by individuals we elect to represent our concerns and act on our behalf. While it may not feel like it, who we elect to represent us in Congress, in our State Legislatures, on our City Councils, makes a tremendous difference in the types of laws and policies that actually get signed into law. So when you head to the polls this week (if you haven’t already voted), it’s an opportunity to truly vote with your fork and elect officials who share your concerns about fostering a more resilient and regenerative food system. 

Other ways that you can take action to build a more sustainable food system:

  • Find out who represents you in Congress and your state legislature
  • Follow your elected officials on social media – let them know when they do something you like (or don’t like)!
  • Check out how your members of Congress voted on sustainable ag and good food 
  • Support Farm To Crag! And stay engaged!

While it may feel like an uphill battle to reverse course and take our food system back, just remember, we’re not alone. Connect with Farm To Crag with any questions, ways we can collaborate, or share local farms we can include on our Farm To Crag map.

about the author:

JULI OBUDZINSKI is a climber, urban gardener, and sustainable food policy advocate. She currently serves as the Deputy Policy Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, based in Washington, D.C., where she coordinates NSAC’s advocacy strategies on Capitol Hill. Since 2011, she has led the coalition’s federal policy work on beginning and underserved farmers and has worked extensively on sustainable agriculture policy priorities in both the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills. Previously, she worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. She currently serves on the USDA Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers, as well as the Advisory Committee on Agricultural Statistics. Obudzinski has a background in Agriculture and Food Policy, and holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Tufts University.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Local & Regional Food Systems

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