June 7, 2021
What do you get when you mix a pandemic context, a carbon-conscious group of farmers and advocates, and a critical window for Congressional action on the climate crisis? The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)’s latest Virtual Farmer “Fly-In” on Climate and Agriculture.
Bringing farmers to Washington, D.C. to tell their stories to their lawmakers and advocate for critical federal policies has always been an essential piece of NSAC’s work. With travel and in-person gatherings currently off the table due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this work has gone virtual, like so much else. For a climate-focused advocacy event, however, skipping the air travel only adds to the relevancy of the message to Congress: Farmers need solutions to climate change, especially ones that support their frontline role in adapting to and mitigating the crisis.
The Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA), recently re-introduced by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM), outlines a farmer-focused, research-driven path to net zero agriculture. In this Virtual Farmer “Fly-In” on Climate and Agriculture, farmers and advocates from 12 states held 17 meetings with lawmakers to ask them to support the ARA and its bold vision of a climate-friendly future for agriculture.
The ARA includes a robust list of investments and policy changes that reimagine a climate-friendly farm economy. From expanding sustainable agriculture research to rewarding stewardship practices, from supporting pasture-based livestock to developing on-farm renewable energy, from increasing farm viability to addressing barriers that farmers of color face: the ARA names innovative, practical approaches to the climate crisis so farmers can directly be a part of the solution. Each fly-in meeting helped to address a piece of this vision.
Research, Renewable Energy, and Farm Viability
Farmers Janet Aardema and Dan Gagnon grow a wide variety of vegetables at Broadfork Farm in Chesterfield, VA. Along with several colleagues including fellow farmer Renard Turner, they met with Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger (D-VA-7) during the Virtual “Fly-In” to share about the importance of agriculture-oriented climate research and on-farm renewable energy to their farming operation.
“Extraordinary weather patterns are unfortunately becoming more common – or even a new unpredictable version of ‘normal’,” Aardema said. “This tells us we have to be ready to handle these wider swings, and we can’t run our farm, and stay in business, and be figuring out the adaptive farming strategies to be resilient in the face of climate extremes. Funding research that our farm and farms like ours can put into practice keeps all us farming and feeding our communities.” The ARA would increase funding for and expand the climate focus of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which supports farmer-driven research into adapting to and mitigating climate change on the farm.
Broadfork Farm has utilized federal farm programs both to adapt to and help mitigate climate change. “Two of our three high tunnels on our farm are thanks to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and these hoophouses are a very effective way to mitigate the extremes that we are experiencing due to climate change,” said Aardema. They have also used the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) to install solar panels on their barn. Aardema said, “REAP has been a critical way for our farm to reduce our use of coal-powered electricity, and we need to only increase the amount of solar energy produced on our farm and other farms.” The ARA would increase funding for both EQIP and REAP.
Renard Turner and his wife, Chinette Turner, co-own Vanguard Ranch in Gordonsville, VA. Vanguard Ranch is Certified Naturally Grown and has a long-term focus on being a diversified, sustainable organic farm. Vanguard Ranch also revolves around innovation and land stewardship. The Turners raise exceptionally hardy meat goats from a line bred on their farm which they have named Bangus: Best All Natural Goat in the United States. Their goats are able to thrive without the typical array of inputs, due to careful breeding, as well as deliberate management of the plants in the pastures where they forage. Vanguard raises squabs in addition to meat goats. Their produce is centered around their TASTE OF AFRICA selections, which are marketed through 4 P foods.
The Turners cultivate community (and farm viability) by selling their meat ready-to-eat on-farm and off from their mobile food truck. They believe, “farming is an act of liberation.” In addition to its provisions to increase on-farm research funding, the ARA would also expand the Value Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG) to help producers develop markets for agriculture products that are produced in a manner that enhances soil health and carbon sequestration, or reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Turner also spoke to the issue of land loss that Black farmers in particular have experienced and advocated for actively addressing injustices of the past and USDA’s history of discrimination. He applauded actions taken on Black farmer debt relief, but emphasized this is just the first step of many that Congress and USDA can take to rectify inequities in our food and agriculture systems.
Conservation Programs and Perennial Agriculture
Tom Arnold raises beef, pork, chicken, and turkey on pasture at Arnolds Farm in Elizabeth, IL. Arnold met with staff of Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL-17). Arnold has used several federal conservation programs on his farm, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), both of which would be expanded by the ARA to better support farmers like Arnold in building resiliency on their farms. Arnold says the programs have helped him address increased flooding events on his farm, and that they support an alternative form of agriculture that “doesn’t fit the monoculture mold, one that benefits the environment and farm profitability.” The ARA would increase funding for CSP and EQIP, and help them more specifically address climate change.
Kaitie Adams, an agroforester who works with the Savanna Institute, met with staff of Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) during the virtual “fly-in.” Adams focuses her work on adding fruit and nut trees into conventional row cropping systems. This introduces perennial root systems into the soil and thereby sequesters carbon, and supports farmer livelihoods and the local food system. She shared excitement with her lawmakers’ staff about the ARA: “Finally, a piece of legislation that not only provides more support and funding to programs that are foundational to my work, but also recognizes agroforestry as a leading mitigation strategy!” Perennial agriculture is built into several of ARA’s provisions and is one of the next frontiers of climate solutions in agriculture.
Like several other farmers who participated in the Virtual “Fly-In” on Climate and Agriculture, Scott Mericka raises animals on pasture; in his case, 400 cows on 600 acres of pasture. Mericka met with the offices of Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Congressman Mark Pocan (D-WI-2). Mericka and his wife, Liana, co-own Uplands Cheese Farm in Dodgeville, WI. They are the second generation to operate the farm, having purchased it from its founding owners after years of apprenticeship and other roles as employees. The farm sells highly-acclaimed cheeses. Margaret Krome, Policy Director at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, who also joined the meeting, reflected of Uplands Cheese, “by basing their farm production and value-added business on perennials like grass, Scott and his family and partners’ dairy holds soil, increases water infiltration, contributes to maintaining water quality and supports carbon sequestration.” The ARA boosts infrastructure, technical assistance, and land access to support pasture-based livestock management.
Racial Equity in the Food System
Helga Garcia-Garza organizes for food justice as Executive Director of Agri-cultura Network and La Cosecha CSA in Albuquerque, NM. She met with Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) during the “fly-in”. Many of the Indigenous and Latinx farmers Garcia-Garza works with, who use climate-friendly, traditional agricultural practices and cooperative ownership structures, have had difficulty in accessing federal conservation programs because of systemic barriers. In addition to advocating for support for the ARA because of its broad vision for a climate-friendly future for agriculture, Garcia-Garza also raised concerns about the barriers Indigenous farmers and other farmers of color face in accessing USDA programs. “As a Native woman in agriculture, I am guided by our ancestral ceremonial agricultural calendar, and I share this knowledge through an intergenerational process. As a farmer myself, I know first-hand the challenges of farm to market… This inspired my strong commitment to protecting the environment and to building a healthy, sustainable, local economy through agricultural practices,” Garcia-Garza shared in a statement on the Agri-cultura Network website. The ARA would help address barriers farmers of color face in accessing USDA programs by increasing set-asides in conservation programs, prioritizing technical assistance to farmers of color, prioritizing organic and perennial agriculture practices throughout programs, and increasing cost-share assistance for farmers of color looking to implement renewable energy projects.
Take Action! While the video calls have ended, the conversation continues! Many different legislative proposals have been introduced on climate and agriculture issues. The upcoming climate and infrastructure package could present an opportunity to move some of these policy proposals forward. It’s critical to show strong support for the Agriculture Resilience Act – take action now and ask your Members of Congress to become cosponsors! More details on our take action page here.