With the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization on the horizon, advocates and farmers from across the country gathered in Washington, DC last month to champion the federal programs important to them and their communities. NSAC hosted a cohort of farmers, ranchers, and food systems advocates for more than thirty meetings with Congressional leaders and senior USDA officials to encourage them to prioritize sustainable food and farm needs in the upcoming farm bill and in ongoing program implementation efforts.
Many of the “fly-in” participants made long trips away from their family and farms during a busy harvest season. Farmers and advocates shared their stories about how federal food and farm policies impact them, their communities, and people across the nation. Participants represented 10 different states: Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Farmers and advocates came to Washington, DC to advocate for a range of issue areas including increased support for sustainable agriculture research, local and regional food systems, working lands conservation, and improving crop insurance. Participants also voiced their support for specific pieces of legislation such as the Agriculture Resilience Act and the Strengthening Local Processing Act.
Addressing the Climate Crisis on Farms
The Agricultural Resilience Act (ARA) (S. 1337 / H.R. 2803) is a farmer-driven, science-based roadmap for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in U.S. agriculture by 2040. Provisions in the ARA include voluntary and incentive-driven measures to ensure all farmers have access to the resources they need to implement critical on-farm solutions to meet climate goals and dramatically improve our food system. It is crucial that members of Congress co-sponsor the ARA and include its provisions in the 2023 Farm Bill to help farmers mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Jessica Krupicka, owner of Heritage Hill Farms in central Iowa, flew in to speak with the offices of Senator Charles Ernst Grassley (R-IA), Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Representative Randy Feenstra (R-IA). She asked her Members of Congress to support farmers as they navigate changing climates by co-sponsoring the ARA.
“The Agriculture Resilience Act is a very important piece of legislation,” said Krupicka. “We’ve been growing vegetables on our farm for roughly 10 years, but I’ve been growing for much longer than that. The climate has changed a lot, especially within the last five years. This year, we had three inches of snow on our farm in mid-April which delayed our planting. There have been other years where there’s been extreme heat. Because of the volatility of our climate, some crops are destined to do poorly.”
The ARA will strengthen farms by investing in research, extension, conservation, and energy. It will give farmers critical tools to address the climate crisis by supporting farmer-centered research, incentivizing on-farm conservation, increasing farm viability, expanding pasture-based livestock, and building on-farm renewable energy.
“We talked about our experiences and then asked for their support in co-sponsoring the ARA. They seemed very receptive, I think it went well,” said Krupicka.
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has been supporting sustainable agriculture research for over 30 years. It is the only regionally based, farmer-driven, and outcome-oriented competitive research program that involves farmers and ranchers directly as the primary investigators or cooperators in research and education projects. SARE is also the only U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) competitive grants research program that focuses solely on sustainable agriculture.
As climate change disrupts the way that farmers grow their crops, it is important that the 2023 Farm Bill makes climate change mitigation and adaptation a new focus within SARE’s statutory mission. It should provide full funding to meet farmer need and realize SARE’s full potential, and expand representation from the 1890 and 1994 Land Grant Institutions and Hispanic Serving Institutions to ensure equitable engagement and participation of farmer supporting voices.
Erin Percival Carter, co-owner and farmer at Steamboat Shire Farm and a Professor at the University of Maine, joined the fly-in to speak to congressional appropriators about the importance of the ARA, increasing funding for the Local Agriculture Marketing Program (LAMP), and for continued support for the SARE program. While in DC, Carter spoke to the offices of Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME).
“We need to continue developing the data people need to communicate system-wide. We must continue to look into how we can use sustainable farming to feed people and solve the climate emergency,” said Carter. “Agriculture is one of the main contributors to that emergency, but agriculture is not going away. It should only be getting better and more efficient.”
Local and Regional Food Systems
The 2018 Farm Bill made critical investments in the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), an umbrella program for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), the Value-Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG), and the Regional Food Systems Partnership. These investments provided significant return when the pandemic and other recent supply chain disruptions upended our food system. The 2023 Farm Bill must ensure this flagship program continues to serve local communities, farmers, and economies by streamlining program administration and expanding program accessibility.
Farmer Russel Brydson operates Narrow Way Farms with his family in McDonough, Georgia. While in DC, he had the opportunity to meet with the offices of Representative Austin Scott (R-GA) and Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GT) and share his experiences with USDA grant programs such as those under LAMP.
“Programs under LAMP, such as VAPG, helped us transition back to on-farm sales,” said Brydson. The program was useful for getting back on our feet after being hit with the onset of the COVD-19 pandemic.”
While LAMP allowed Brysdon to respond well to the crisis, too many producers are still left out of the system due to the lack of appropriately sized processing, aggregation, and distribution infrastructure.
“Realistically, to be able to cover your expenses and pay your bills, you need a certain amount of finances and infrastructure,” said Brydson. “You need to have money to make money.”
Federal programs like LAMP can support farmers, ranchers, and fishers who want to take advantage of these new economic opportunities by connecting them with aggregators, processors, distributors, retailers, and institutional buyers and consumers in local and regional marketplaces. As Congress begins to draft the 2023 Farm Bill, LAMP should be strengthened to ensure equitable access to this key local and regional food system program.
Working Lands Conservation
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is one of the nation’s largest working lands conservation programs, supporting farmers and ranchers as they introduce and expand conservation practices on their lands. CSP provides technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers, rewarding both their active management of ongoing conservation efforts and adoption of new, additional conservation enhancements and advanced conservation systems on their entire farming operation.
Farmer interest in CSP is growing. Since the 2018 Farm Bill, CSP has seen a 20 percent increase in applications. In fiscal year 2020, of 34,572 applications received, only about a quarter of farmers and ranchers were funded. Increasing funding for CSP in the 2023 Farm Bill by providing the program $4 billion per year will support the growing demand for financial and technical assistance by reducing the growing application backlog. This will ensure that conservation programs can support the growing demand for assistance and will increase program accessibility while encouraging higher levels of stewardship.
Lindsey Shapiro, farmer at Root Mass Farm in Bally, Pennsylvania and an organizer with Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, joined the fly-in to speak with Congress about some of the obstacles farmers are facing on the ground. Shapiro met with Congressman GT Thompson (R-PA) to speak about the importance of allocating more funding for conservation programs in the 2023 Farm Bill.
“Conservation programs are integral to farm businesses. It’s important to understand that more funding for conservation programs helps out the whole farm,” said Shapiro.
In addition to increasing funding, conservation programs must be made more accessible to farmers by providing them with clear information before, during, and after the application process, even if they are denied.
“There is a disconnect between what programs are available and what recommended initiatives should be implemented,” said Shapiro.
Improving Crop Insurance
Federal policy has historically protected certain kinds of farming and farmers very well through commodity subsidy programs and subsidized crop insurance for widely grown crops, such as corn, soy, and wheat.
In order to serve the diversity of American agriculture, the 2023 Farm Bill must improve crop insurance by improving access to the safety net for small and mid-sized, beginning, organic, and specialty crop producers, promoting natural resource stewardship as returns on taxpayer investment, and level the playing field for family farms by ensuring efficient use of public funds.
Farmer Noreen Thomas, who operates Doubting Thomas Farm in Minnesota, flew into DC to talk to her Members of Congress about issues that affect farmers including the importance of funding for conservation programs, the upcoming farm bill, and improving crop insurance.
“There’s some major gaps in it,” Thomas said of the farm safety net system. “We’re putting a lot of farmers and food supply at risk. Beginning farmers end up spending a lot of money because there’s no insurance for specialty crops. My son lost $40,000 because the alfalfa didn’t germinate properly and it was uninsurable for the first year.”
Thomas also shared that, in addition to making things easier for beginning farmers, extending crop insurance to specialty crops will have a positive impact on soil health.
“If you encourage more diversity within crop insurance, it’s better for soil health,” she said. “If we don’t take good care of the land now, what are we doing for future generations?”
Local Meat Processing
The bipartisan, bicameral Strengthening Local Processing Act (SLPA) (S.370 / H.R. 1258) lays out a national strategy for sustained investment in small and very small meat processing plants. The SLPA increases states’ ability to opt-in to cooperative interstate shipments, provides guidance on how to ensure food safety across small and very small plants, and authorizes funding to provide the type of highly skilled labor necessary for local processing plants to thrive. Supporting the SLPA will help ensure the 2023 Farm Bill addresses the workforce shortage by creating new training programs for jobs in meat processing, increases regional and interstate trade, expands technical assistance to support scaling of existing plants and the viability of new plants, and sustains investments in expanding local and regional processing capacity.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for continued investments in local and regional meat processing programs to support good jobs in rural communities and reduce burdens for farmers. In addition to coming to DC to speak on the ARA, Jessica Krupicka of Heritage Hill Farm also spoke to the office of Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) about difficulties her community faces in being able to process meat locally.
“There were situations when large packing plants would shut down early on in the pandemic. It was not unheard of to have semi-loads of hogs try to make an appointment at a local locker that could maybe do 10 hogs a day,” said Krupicka. “Local lockers have been amazing, but during COVID, all of the spots would be full. They were working as hard as they could, but they were struggling because they didn’t have the staff or space. I would like to see increased funding for smaller meat processors and lockers so that they can expand or open up new opportunities, especially for smaller towns,” said Krupicka.
The current Farm Bill expires on September 30, 2023, so Congress will soon begin drafting the next Farm Bill. Right now, Members of Congress are beginning to introduce “marker bills,” pieces of legislation that don’t usually pass on their own but provide ideas and language that may end up in the final bill. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees are expected to begin work on drafting the Farm Bill itself in early 2023.
There is a lot to do to ensure that the 2023 Farm Bill serves farmers and communities across the nation. NSAC will continue to amplify the stories of farmers and others using farm bill programs and encourage our champions in Congress to invest in sustainable agriculture, racial equity, and structural reform in the next Farm Bill. We plan to release our 2023 Farm Bill platform in November. Working alongside our members, we look forward to advocating for policy that ensures a better food and farm system for the planet and all those who inhabit it.