This summer, farm and food advocates have more on their minds than just vacation planning and sweet corn picking. Even though the current farm bill doesn’t expire until next September, the content of the 2018 Farm Bill is already being debated in the halls of Congress, on the farm, and in homes across the country. Not surprisingly, the 2018 Farm Bill was also a primary focus of the Summer 2017 National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) Member Meeting. Twice a year the 119 member organizations of NSAC have the opportunity to gather and discuss the coalition’s policy and grassroots priorities for the year. This year, we were fortunate to be hosted in Madison, Wisconsin at the University of Wisconsin, Madison – the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) at UW Madison is an NSAC member organization.
Agriculture plays a very important part in the lives of many “Sconnies,” and we were proud to have several of our nine WI-based members help us to host this year’s meeting, including: Michael Fields Agricultural Institute (MFAI), Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), Organic Valley (OV), Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA), and GrassWorks.
On the Farm(s)
As an agricultural state that produces much more than just great cheese, Wisconsin was a perfect setting for this year’s Summer Meeting. Wisconsin agriculture provides $59 billion a year to the state’s economy, which means 354,000 jobs (10 percent of total employment) are created by the state’s agricultural industry. Farmers steward roughly 15 million acres of land in Wisconsin, and produce everything from commodity crops like corn and soybeans, to dairy and cheese products, to specialty crops like snap peas and carrots.
Tipi Produce is a 45-acre organic vegetable farm near Evansville, WI, which was named 2016 Organic Farm of the Year by NSAC member group MOSES. Tipi is run by Steve Pincus, who started farming in 1975, his wife Beth Kazmar, who joined the operation in 1999, and their two children. Beth and Steve sell roughly half their produce direct through a local 500-share CSA, and the other half is sold wholesale to natural food stores (including NSAC meeting sponsor, Willy Street Co-Op) in the region.
Beth and Steve are dedicated to growing good food through good practices; that means: building the health of their soil, providing fresh food to their community, and supporting their workers with a living wage. Tipi Produce has no animals on their operation, and so they increase productivity of their land primarily through the use of cover crops. Beth and Steve also believe that listening to the land is important, and therefore they only grow the fruits and vegetables that are well-suited to their climate, soil, and farming practices. When NSAC visited, Steve and Beth had fields and hoop houses full of delicious looking carrots, tomatoes, cabbages, watermelon, leafy greens, and much more for us to admire and learn about.
R&G Miller & Sons is an organic dairy farm that is also part of the Organic Valley Cooperative (an NSAC member organization). R&G has been in operation since 1852 and is today run by eight family members, along with 6 full-time and a few part-time employees. Certified organic in 1997, R&G manages 1550 acres of certified organic land that they use both for their own operation and to grow crops to feed their dairy herd and young stock of roughly 800 head, and also rent for pasture to other farmers.
As an organic operation, R&G is focused on keeping their animals and their soils healthy and strong without synthetic inputs. In order to grow their crops, R&G practices crop rotation, cover cropping, and reduces waste by using the organic manure produced from their animals as natural fertilizer.
Crop rotation is a cornerstone of organic farming that enables producers to disrupt insect life cycles and therefore avoid the need for pesticides. It also helps farmers combat weeds, improves soil health and texture, and reduces erosion. R&G also enhances their soil fertility by using cover crops (along with chicken manure compost, mined potassium sulfate and mined gypsum).
Of course, no day on the farm would be complete without a farm dinner. Thanks to the talented crew at Underground Catering (particularly Chef Jonny Hunter, who is part of the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative) and donations from Organic Valley and CIAS, NSAC members were treated to a delicious meal made entirely from regional ingredients.
Thanks to the support of our meeting sponsors – Annie’s Homegrown, Clif Bar, Organic Valley, Willy Street Co-Op, and Wisconsin Farmers Union – who helped to make our farm dinner, and truly the entire Summer Meeting, possible. In addition to learning from local producers and enjoying some delicious regional foods, NSAC members also spent a considerable amount of time and effort workshopping policy priorities and strategies for the year ahead. This year, the coalition is focused on advocating for a 2018 Farm Bill that is good for family farmers, good for the environment, and good for the public.
2018 Farm Bill Priorities
Increasing Farming Opportunity: Beginning Farmers and Ranchers:
Nearly 100 million acres of farmland (enough to support nearly 250,000 family farms) is set to change hands over the next five years – during the course of our next farm bill. To keep our agricultural economy strong, we need to facilitate the transfer of skills, knowledge, and land between current and future generations of family farmers. We can do this by ensuring that our federal policies make it possible for the next generation of American producers to support their families, revitalize rural communities, and protect our shared natural resources for generations to come.
The next farm bill must lay out a national strategy to ensure a bright future for America’s family farmers by knocking down long-standing barriers to entry and opening new doors to economic opportunity. The 2018 Farm Bill should give real support to aspiring and retiring farmers and ranchers, as well as the American public, by:
- Expanding beginning farmers’ access to affordable farmland
- Empowering new farmers with the skills to succeed in today’s agricultural economy
- Ensuring equitable access to financial capital and federal crop insurance
- Encouraging a commitment to conservation and stewardship across generations
Advancing Land Stewardship: Comprehensive Conservation Title Reform
American producers are hardworking people. Every day they face myriad economic and environmental obstacles and challenges (e.g., extreme weather, soil and plant health issues, and pests) and work to overcome them. For decades, voluntary conservation programs offered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have empowered farmers with the skills, resources, and training to take on the challenges that come with stewardship. Today, however, many farmers find it increasingly difficult to access this support because of a lack of program funding and weak or contradictory policy language.
It is our goal to ensure that federal policies incentivize, encourage, and reward stewardship efforts, and that federal programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) are funded to meet farmer demand for conservation assistance. The 2018 Farm Bill should achieve these goals by:
- Expanding program access to serve farmers of all types, sizes, and geography
- Enhancing impact by targeting dollars to the most effective conservation activities
- Improving support for conservation outreach, planning, and implementation support
- Increasing effectiveness and efficiency through better measurement, evaluation, and reporting
Also included in NSAC’s goals for farm bill conservation reform is the promotion of sustainable livestock systems. Policies for sustainable livestock should support small and mid-sized sustainable livestock producers through improved access to markets and increased infrastructure support, and generate positive environmental outcomes (including soil health, carbon sequestration and better water quality and wildlife habitat) from improved livestock management practices. NSAC sees opportunities to increase the sustainability of animal agricultural systems in the farm bill by: providing supplemental CSP payments for rotational grazing and supplemental CRP Grasslands payments for rotation, eliminating the existing payment reduction for incidental grazing within CRP, and creating a pasture set-aside within EQIP livestock funding.
Investing in Growing Regional Food Economies: New Markets and Jobs
Consumer demand for local and regional products is on the rise, and this growing interest in the “farm to fork” pipeline is helping to open new markets and economic opportunities to farmers and food producers across the nation. Despite the potential opportunities to be found in the growing local/regional markets, farmers continue to face serious roadblocks and barriers to entry. A lack of infrastructure (e.g., storage, aggregation, transportation, and processing capacity) and technical links (e.g., marketing and business planning) have made it difficult for many farmers and producers to update their businesses to reach these new customer bases. By helping to connect the dots between producers and local customers (including individuals, institutions, and others along the farm to fork pipeline), Congress can generate wins that equally benefit farmers and eaters, as well as rural and urban communities.
The 2018 Farm Bill should strengthen communities with farm to fork investments and put choice back into the hands of the people by:
- Helping farmers reach new markets through outreach, cost-share, and technical assistance programs
- Increasing access to fresh, healthy, local food among low-income groups and communities in need
- Developing new and strengthening existing infrastructure that connects producers to consumers
Securing Seeds for the Future: Public Plant Breeding Research & Development
Diversification is a central tenet of any good risk management plan, whether applied to business and finance, or food and farming. In agriculture, biological diversity is key to ensuring success: having a variety of well-adapted crops not only reduces the impacts of extreme weather, pests, and disease, it also protects against price fluctuations in the market. Today, however, we are increasingly losing diversity where it counts the most – our seed stocks.
The farm bill should invest in the resiliency of our food system, expand opportunities for innovation and new markets, and bring choice and diversity back to agricultural research and seed breeding. By investing in farmers’ most foundational tool – the seed – we can help to ensure a sustainable and robust American food system for years to come. This bill should keep American agriculture competitive and resilient by:
- Expanding quality seed options, giving farmers the freedom to choose what and how to grow
- Encouraging research and crop diversity to ensure the security and sustainability of the American food system
- Improving coordination and transparency among research and breeding programs to make more informed and strategic public and private investments
Aligning Risk Management, Conservation and Family Farming: Crop Insurance Reform
Americans rely on family farmers for the food on our tables, and we trust them to protect the lands they steward. Because of the important role farming plays in our lives and in our economy, it is in the public interest to help protect farmers against risk. There are many approaches to managing risk, including crop, enterprise, and market diversification and investing in soil health and conservation. However, current federal policy on agricultural risk management focuses primarily on taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance.
For family farmers to successfully weather the inherent challenges of a life in agriculture, they need a federal crop insurance program that is more efficient, effective, and responsive to the growing diversity of the industry. Farmers deserve a federal crop insurance program that works regardless of what they grow, encourages good land stewardship practices, and fosters a level playing field for all. In return for taxpayer support of the farm safety net, the American public deserves a crop insurance program that is as effective as it is accountable and transparent. The farm bill should achieve these goals by:
- Expanding access to serve all types of farmers
- Actively promoting conservation by eliminating barriers to sustainable farming practices and linking premium subsidies to stewardship practices
- Reforming the program’s structure so that it does not unfairly influence markets, resource availability, or farmers’ planting decisions
- Improving the delivery of the crop insurance program to make it more transparent and efficient
Gathering with our membership is something we all look forward to as an opportunity to groundtruth our work, collaborate with partners, and learn new things from new folks. By rotating our semi-annual meetings geographically, we are able to get a first-hand understanding of the opportunities and challenges faced by farmers, ranchers, and food entrepreneurs across the country. We also always come away inspired and motivated from the things we have learned and seen. This year, we need that inspiration and motivation more than ever. The 2018 Farm Bill is the most important package of policy legislation for farmers and food advocates because it covers such a broad range of issues, and sets the stage for the next five years. Stay tuned to the NSAC blog and to our e-newsletter and Action Alerts for programs and policies to keep an eye on, key times to engage your legislators, and opportunities to help support family farmers and sustainable agriculture.