If some years are rollercoasters, 2016 was more like the tilt-a-whirl – a lot of effort spent to turn just slightly in one direction or another, much spinning in circles, and a headache at the end for your trouble. Despite all the stop and starts, however, the sustainable agriculture community came out of the last year with some very significant victories. Our “Sweet 16” picks were among the most significant victories of the year, but are by no means the only victories for sustainable food and farm advocates this year.
We look forward to celebrating – and defending – these victories with our members, farmers and ranchers, and all of our supporters in the new year!
Beginning Farmers and Ranchers
- In August, USDA announced nearly $18 million in federal grant funding to be invested in 37 projects serving new and aspiring farmers and ranchers, 29 of which were community-based and non-profit organizations – including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and several NSAC member organizations. This funding cycle marks the second year in a row that program funding has prioritized non-profit and community-based projects; in contrast to fiscal year (FY) 2014 funding, where larger, university-led projects dominated. As the average age of our nation’s farmers and ranchers continues to rise, training the next generation has become an increasingly urgent priority. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) was developed by NSAC as part of the 2002 Farm Bill, and is the only federal program specifically dedicated to training the next generation of American farmers and ranchers.
- After years of advocating and working with our organizational partners, USDA announced in November that the USDA’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach (OAO) would now reside within and report directly to the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture, as long recommended by NSAC. This is an important and historic change. Established in the 2008 Farm Bill, OAO was intended to give beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers a stronger advocate within USDA, and to better connect with the agency’s programs and services. OAO also administers the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers program (also known as the “2501 program”), which provides grants to organizations that work with minority and veteran farmers. Unfortunately, the office has not always been adequately empowered to serve beginning, minority, and disadvantaged farmers to its fullest potential. Moving OAO to the Secretary’s office will elevate OAO within the Department in order to create transparent lines of accountability and authority; better facilitate oversight and coordination functions across the Department; and help USDA to continue to provide a more coordinated and holistic approach to outreach to underserved communities.
Conservation, Organic Agriculture, and Research
- Under guidelines established by USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA), farmers must undertake all the “generally recognized practices” that will give their crops the best chance to reach maturity and be harvested. Up until early December, however, many best practices widely promoted by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and used by conservation-oriented farmers were not always considered “good farming practices” (GFP) by RMA.For several years NSAC has urged RMA and NRCS to coordinate and address this situation, and in mid-December RMA finally issued a version of their Good Farming Practices Handbook that makes clear that NRCS’s recommended practices are also considered GFP. Unfortunately, the provision is weakened by three caveats that could make the new approach far less effective. NSAC will continue working with RMA to remove these provisions and help the agency better encourage conservation efforts.
- Edging out last year’s record breaking results, 2016 saw the highest ever Continuous Conservation Reserve Program(CCRP) enrollment, a program that NSAC was instrumental in starting in the 1990s and preserving over time. For FY 2016, over 1.3 million acres were enrolled. Conservation gains will be made on enrolled lands through conservation buffer practices, which keep nutrients and soil on the land and out of adjacent waterways. Many of the FY 2016 CCRP acres are also likely to be enrolled in wildlife-related practices, which will target support to the most at-risk habitats. CRP participants whose contracts expired this year once again received a letter from the FSA, as recommended by NSAC, highlighting some excellent options that would allow them to continue managing their land with conservation-oriented approach.
- Together with NSAC, the Organic Farming Research Foundation (an NSAC member) produced the Taking Stock report, a review of federal organic research programs and how well they are meeting the needs of organic farmers. This report includes first-of-its-kind analysis of the effects of organic support programs to date, and includes a series of recommendations to improve organic programs going forward. NSAC played a leading role, in partnership with OFRF, in helping develop OREI in 1998 and is pleased to see the success these research initiatives have demonstrated thus far. In October, a few months after the report was issued, USDA’s National Institution of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) released an RFA for OREI that awards grants to research, education and extension projects that seek to advance the production and improve the quality of organic produce. We were pleased to find that the new RFA reflected many NSAC recommendations to improve the administration of the program.
- NSAC was successful in convincing USDA to create a new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) conservation buffer initiative for organic producers; this was a huge win for both conservation and organic farmers. Up to 20,000 acres will be enrolled in the initiative, which FSA launched in February 2016. In May 2016, NSAC published the Organic Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Reserve Program Field Border Buffer Initiative to help producers navigate the new initiative.
- Organic certification cost share assistance, which can help small and mid-sized organic farmers and producers defray certification costs, became more accessible in December when the Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP) was transitioned from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to the Farm Service Agency (FSA). Under FSA, farmers and producers will have expanded access to the program; those interested can apply, get information, and ask questions about the program at over 2,100 FSA offices across the country.
Crop insurance and credit
- In only its second year on the market, sales of Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) insurance have nearly doubled – from 1,110 policies in 2015 to 2,143 in 2016. This is great news for a relatively new risk-management product still technically in its pilot phase. NSAC was a major proponent of the program, which was authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill and which is aimed at highly diversified farms. We believe WFRP has immense potential to bring risk-management solutions to currently underserved farmers and growers across the country, so this level of growth is extremely encouraging.
- In January, USDA announced exciting changes to their Microloan Program, including launching a new Direct Farm Ownership Microloan, which will streamline and quicken the loan approval process for smaller real estate loans. With the launch of Direct Farm Ownership Microloans, FSA aims to make farm ownership loans more available and attractive to small operators. The new ownership microloan program offers reduced application requirements, more timely application processing, and added flexibility for Youth Loan borrowers in meeting the farm experience eligibility.
- USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced in April that their Farm Storage Facility Loan (FSFL) program would now help finance portable storage structures, portable equipment, and storage and handling trucks in addition to continuing its longstanding capacity to finance stationary crop and cold storage on-farm facilities. This expansion of the low-interest loan program will help FSA better serve fruit and vegetable farmers and others who need to get crops safely and efficiently to local farmers’ markets, schools, restaurants, food hubs, and retail stores. NSAC has been working with FSA to make changes that will better serve the needs of a diverse range of farm businesses, and we are very pleased with the results.
- Throughout the year NSAC worked closely with FSA and our allies in Congress to address a shortfall in FSA Farm Operating Loans. In June 2016, NSAC joined eight national farm and financial organizations in appealing to Congress to take immediate steps to deal with the FSA shortfall and secure much-needed funds for farmers. Several months later, in September, congressional appropriators allocated $185 million in additional lending for direct and guaranteed farm operating loans. This appropriation took nearly 2,000 approved loan applicants out of limbo and filled FSA’s loan funding shortfall through the FY 2016 fiscal year. By December, NSAC succeeded in convincing congressional appropriators to include a provision in the Continuing Resolution to allow USDA to make loans to farmers and ranchers in proportion to demand. This “anomaly” provision (so named because of the rarity of such provisions) will make it possible for USDA to offer credit to beginning and other family farmers during the winter and spring months, when loan demand peaks, without running out of loan funds.
Marketing, food safety, and farm businesses
- In July, NSAC welcomed the issuance of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) final rule amending the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requirements for food facility registration. By redefining the term “retail food establishments”, the FDA provided clear distinctions between which farms and related businesses are subject to “food facility” registration under the Preventive Controls Rule, and which are not. Farmers and small food enterprises primarily selling value-added products directly to consumers can now rest assured that they are not subject to food facility registration requirements or regulations.
- NSAC sponsored a meeting of very small niche meat/sustainable livestock processors and FSIS staff in October at a farm and meat plant in northern Indiana. At this gathering we worked to develop joint recommendations to improve policy for and communications with small scale and on-farm meat and poultry processors. We received FSIS’ commitment to quarterly meetings going forward, and to continue working on our recommendations for continual improvements.
- In response to significant criticism from producers and consumers of sustainable meats following their revocation of the grassfed label claim in early 2016, in September USDA released an animal production claims guidance document intended to ward against misleading label claims. NSAC was pleased that FSIS clarified through this guidance that any label claim using the term ‘grassfed’ must meet a 100 percent grassfed standard. Taking this action was necessary to preserve the label’s strong reputation, and we applauded FSIS’ swift response to producer and consumer concerns following AMS’ withdrawal of the standard earlier this year.
- Perhaps one of NSAC’s longest-standing battles and biggest wins of 2016 (though the final battle on this has yet to be fought) was USDA’s publishing of the “Farmer Fair Practices Rules” in December. This historic step of issuing the three rules will begin to bring some fairness and order to the poultry and livestock industries, with a particular focus on farmers growing under contracts with the big meat and poultry processing corporations. These rules, once finalized, will prevent unfair and anti-competitive practices by meat processors, protect farmers from retaliation for working with other farmers to promote their interests, and bring some order to the “tournament” system that is so harmful to American poultry farmers.
NSAC is as committed to our grassroots and advocacy work as we are to policymaking. One major part of this grassroots advocacy is our “Farmer Fly-ins”, wherein NSAC brings farmers and ranchers to Capitol Hill to meet face-to-face with their policy makers as sustainability champions. This is a very important part of our work, as it gives farmers and ranchers a chance to be heard and speak truth to power, while it also gives policymakers a chance to hear firsthand from folks in their districts about how different programs and policies affect their daily lives and businesses. We would, therefore, be remiss to not include a short summary of our direct farmer actions this year as win #16.
- Throughout 2016 NSAC hosted five unique farmer fly-ins, bringing in 20 different farmers from 16 states across the country. This year, our farmer advocacy groups focused on the FY 2017 budget negotiations and advocated on behalf of key conservation, education, and food safety programs including: Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers program (“Section 2501”); the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP); Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE); Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP); Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP); and National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (aka ATTRA).
We could not achieve all of these successes without the continuous support and hard work of our members, allies and supporters, so thank you and happy new year!