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Natalie Lounsbury and Jack Gurley showing off a huge tillage radish (which are used as a cover crop) from their field. Photo credit: SARE, Edwin Remsberg.

Over 30 years ago, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (SAC) – predecessor to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) – championed the development of the first-ever, farmer-driven research program as one of their first campaigns. SAC’s efforts bore fruit, and as a result, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program was created. In its 30-year lifespan, SARE has stood as the model for both sustainable agriculture and farmer-driven research at the federal level, and is to date the only federal research program that is driven by farmer needs and farmer input (and actually funds farmers to do research on their farms!). Both NSAC and SARE celebrate their 30th anniversaries this year.

As part of this momentous anniversary year, NSAC has worked closely with SARE and the Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas (ATTRA) program of National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), the conference’s sponsors, to convene stakeholders within the sustainable agriculture community in a national dialogue about the state of sustainable agriculture in this country. SARE’s Our Farms Our Future Conference will be a rare opportunity both to learn about SARE’s impact over the last three decades, and to also reflect on the future of SARE and sustainable agriculture in this country for decades to come.

Stakeholders Spoke, SARE Listened

NSAC is especially excited about this conference, as it was the genesis of a listening session NSAC co-hosted with SARE several years ago to better understand how well the program continues to meet the needs of farmers and the NGO sustainable agriculture community. This two day meeting brought together researchers, extension professionals, farmers, and NGO leaders within the sustainable agriculture community, and resulted in several recommendations that address how SARE can remain responsive to the ever evolving needs of farmers in this country, while continuing to innovate and push through the existing limits of what we envision sustainability to be today.

One specific recommendation resulting from that listening session was to convene stakeholders within the sustainable agriculture community to have a national dialogue about the future of SARE and sustainable agriculture, and what sustainability will really look like in 50 years. NSAC looks forward to attending The Our Farms, Our Future Conference to engage in that conversation with the rest of the sustainable agriculture community.

Conference Highlights

Our Farms Our Future will be held April 3-5, 2018 at the Hyatt Regency in St. Louis, MO. Click here for additional information and registration details. Early bird Registration ends February 23.

The conference will include breakout sessions tailored to military veteran farmers, beginning farmers, and all farmers interested in learning more about sustainable agriculture techniques. There will also be poster sessions, farm tours, film screenings, and policy discussion.

NSAC’s Senior Strategic Advisor and former Policy Director Ferd Hoefner will lead a panel discussion with Margaret Krome, Program Director for Public Policy with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and NCAT Board Member, on Wednesday afternoon.

Hoefner and Krome’s panel will discuss the future of sustainable agriculture policy in the United States, with a particular focus on the potential impacts of the upcoming farm bill. Their session will explore the interplay between the sustainable agriculture movement and federal policy reform, with a review of the road we have walked and the paths forward in the years to come.

NSAC would strongly encourage all farmers and “ag-vocates” interested in learning more about sustainable agriculture, research, and federal policy to consider attending this exciting conference and engage in this important national dialogue about the future of farming.

The post 30th Anniversary Conference Reflects on Future of Sustainable Agriculture appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Representative Tim Walz (D-MN), February 2018 Soil Health briefing. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.

From the microorganisms down in it to the food that grows from it, farmers care deeply about the health of their soil. Cultivating and maintaining healthy soils on working lands has benefits far beyond crop production, however. The healthier the soil, the less a farmer has to use chemical inputs, which is both a cost saving for the farmer and good for the environment. Healthier soils also better retain moisture, which increases resilience to drought and means that nutrients stay in the ground and don’t leach into the water supply.

Congress is working now to develop our next farm bill, a massive package of legislation that will include policies that either help or hinder the promotion of conservation practices that build and maintain soil health. As the programs and policies of the farm bill are debated, groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) are working to promote the benefits of conservation systems and highlight how the next farm bill can help more farmers increase their sustainability.

This week, NSAC partnered with the Soil Health Institute, General Mills, and the Land Stewardship Project (an NSAC member) to host a congressional briefing on the benefits of soil health and the critical role the farm bill plays in increasing our commitment to proven conservation practices. The briefing was hosted in conjunction with Congressman Tim Walz (D-MN), a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee who has been a long-time champion for conservation and soil health in the farm bill.

Why Soil Health Matters

A healthy soil is a living ecosystem that is able to sustain plants, animals, and humans. As mentioned, healthy soils have benefits both on and off the farm – they help to ensure productive cropland, grazing lands, and forests, and also play a vital role in keeping our natural resources healthy by filtering potential pollutants, cycling nutrients, and providing physical stability and support for plant roots. 

Congressman Walz opened the meeting by discussing the myriad benefits of soil health and the important roll that farm bill conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) play in ensuring that farmers have the information and resources they need to increase their farms’ sustainability. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Congressman Walz is actively working with NSAC and other farm and conservation groups to ensure that the next farm bill includes strong support for critical working lands conservation programs.

Following the Congressman’s remarks, Dr. Rob Myers and Dr. Wayne Honeycutt dug into the science of soil health. Dr. Myers, Regional Director of Extension Programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program at the University of Missouri, centered his discussion on the relationship between cover crops (a crop grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil) and improved soil health. Dr. Myers highlighted the short and long-term benefits of cover cropping, which include: healthier soils, reduced erosion and runoff, and significant yield improvements over time.

Dr. Honeycutt, President and CEO of the Soil Health Institute, leads the Institute’s programs to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of soils. His presentation highlighted national soil health challenges and opportunities, and focused on growing climate pressures and the need to build and protect resilient soils and systems. In particular, healthy soils enhance the ability of the soils to retain water, thus building resilience in the face of drought and extreme weather. Dr. Honeycutt concluded by identifying the key components of the Soil Health Institute’s Action Plan: research, measurements, economies, communications/education, and policy.

The Farmer Perspective

The briefing included perspective from two farmers who are leading the way in managing and improving the health of working lands’ soil. These farmers each brought a unique voice to the conversation and shared personal stories about the importance of soil health to their family’s operations.

Jimmy Kinder, a fourth generation farmer and rancher from Cotton County Oklahoma, farms 8,000 acres. Kinder Farm raises several different crops and animals, including stocker cattle, wheat, canola, and grain sorghum. Kinder was an early adopter of no-till production practices in southwest Oklahoma and his decades of success have convinced even the skeptical of the benefits of on-farm conservation practices. According to Kinder, his family’s farm was devastated during the Dust Bowl; the effects on the soil were apparent even many decades later when he took over the farm. Thanks to years of dedication to on-farm conservation practices, however, Kinder has managed to rejuvenate the soil on his farm and convince many other producers to look into no-till conservation production.

Jon Jovaag is a farmer from Austin, Minnesota, who grows corn, small grains, alfalfa, and soybeans, and also raises pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle. Half of the farm that Jovaag works with his family is certified organic, and the entire operation benefits from conservation farming techniques. Jovaag prioritizes soil stewardship and conservation, because he knows that these practices will help to make his farm profitable for generations to come. So far, Jovaag has tried his hand at cover cropping, limited till organic farming, and reducing his off-farm inputs. Jovaag has also been a leader in Land Stewardship Project’s Federal Policy Steering Committee, where he is an active advocate for USDA conservation programs.

Both Kinder and Jovaag highlighted the impacts that federal conservation programs like CSP, which both have used, have on a farmer’s ability adopt and expand key conservation activities.

Policy and Partnerships

The final two panelists concluded the briefing by addressing farm bill policies and programs that are critical for soil health, as well as the role food businesses have to play in encouraging on-farm conservation.

Alyssa Charney, Senior Policy Specialist at NSAC, walked the audience through the key farm bill programs that provide farmers with the tools they need to invest in and expand their soil health efforts. In particular, Charney emphasized just how critical it is that Congress not only protect, but enhance CSP in the next farm bill. CSP is unique among agricultural conservation programs because it provides comprehensive conservation assistance to address priority natural resource concerns; by taking a holistic and advanced approach to working lands conservation, CSP has done more to advance soil health than any other conservation program to date. Currently, over 72 million acres nationwide are enrolled in CSP.

Erika Baum, a government and public affairs representative for General Mills, concluded the panel by highlighting General Mills’ commitment to investing in their farmers’ long-term success and sustainability. Baum underscored that General Mills would be elevating its focus on soil health as a core component of good farming practices, and was committed strengthening their work with partners and allies in the sustainable agriculture and conservation communities. 

Next Steps

NSAC thanks Congressman Walz and the other panelists for their leadership and efforts to advance soil health. We will continue to worth with our champions in Congress to advance working lands conservation, as well as our partners in the conservation and agriculture communities to advance these critical priorities in the next farm bill.

The post Soil Health Briefing Digs Into On-Farm Conservation appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Capella Farm, Michigan. Photo credit: Lindsey Scalera.

The deeply problematic proposals of the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2019 budget, released on Monday of this week, include devastating cuts to critical farm and food programs. The budget, if enacted, would reduce the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) budget by a whopping 25 percent, from $24 billion to $18 billion. In addition to cutting discretionary funding, the budget request proposes to dramatically reduce farm bill funding for nutrition, conservation, and other farm and food programs.

The ill-advised proposals in this budget create few winners, but many losers. In addition to harming American family farmers, the proposal will strip rural communities of tools and resources needed for job creation and enterprise development, deny low-income individuals and families critical nutrition support, damage the health of our natural resources, and undercut years of advancements in agricultural research and seed breeding.

To read the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) full reaction to the President’s budget, please click here. To view a detailed breakdown of the FY 2019 budget request relative to current funding levels, download our appropriations chart here.

Budget Overview

Some of the most severe cuts to discretionary funding (funding that comes through appropriations rather than through the farm bill) in the President’s budget include: $183 million from Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA); $32 from the to the Economic Research Service (a 50 percent cut); and the complete elimination of rural enterprise development programs administered by the Rural Business and Cooperative Service (RBCS).

The most significant changes to mandatory farm bill spending are the President’s proposal to cut $213 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over ten years, and the proposal to eliminate two of the nation’s most successful conservation programs — the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The cut to SNAP, a program upon which millions of Americans rely for access to healthy food, is $20 billion larger than the $193 billion cut proposed by the President last May.

The President’s budget request is not the final say on the matter, thankfully. This proposal is primarily important because it sets the tone for budget negotiations and lays out a clear picture of the Administration’s priorities; ultimately, Congress will decide appropriations levels for FY 2019 as well as funding levels for the 2018 Farm Bill. For a full breakdown of the budget, see our updated FY 2019 Appropriations Chart.

In the following summary of the President’s budget proposal, we outline areas of particular interest and concern to the sustainable agriculture community, including:

Conservation

The budget proposal’s sweeping cuts to farm bill conservation programs are extremely counterproductive, undermining the long-standing partnership between farmers and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Tens of thousands of farmers use NRCS conservation programs each year to enhance their soil, reduce water pollution, and protect wildlife habitat and other natural resources. Moreover, farmers use programs like CSP to help them prepare for extreme whether by increasing the resilience of their farming operations. NRCS programs are routinely oversubscribed, with more than half of all qualified applicants turned away each year. Despite the clear need and demand for these programs, the President’s budget takes a slash and burn approach, leaving farmers, ranchers, and our shared natural resources to pay the price.

Among the most shocking attacks on conservation in the President’s proposal is the inclusion of two proposals that would entirely wipe out the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). CSP is the nation’s largest conservation program, and helps farmers and ranchers implement whole-farm conservation plans to address priority resource concerns including soil health, water quality, and wildlife habitat.

The first way the proposal seeks to attack CSP is through the appropriations process. Typically, the job of determining farm bill spending levels is left to the authorizing committees – in this case, the Agriculture Committees. There is, however, a process by which appropriators can limit mandatory farm bill spending via a mechanism known as Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS). The President’s budget request asks appropriators to use CHIMPS to cut all farm bill mandatory spending for CSP in FY 2019. Were it to become reality, conservation plans and activities would be applied on 10 million fewer acres as a result.

The budget’s second assault on USDA conservation programs comes through a proposal to completely eliminate CSP and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in the upcoming farm bill. While CSP takes a holistic approach to conservation, RCPP supports conservation projects through partnerships with farmers and entities like state governments or non-profit organizations. Although the budget request does not include CHIMPS or a farm bill cut to CSP’s sister program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), it does propose rescinding $136 million in carry-over funding.

The President’s budget also includes an appropriations proposal to cut $183 million (24 percent) from FY 2017 levels for CTA. This cut to CTA is even more drastic than last year’s proposal, which was strongly rejected by both the House and Senate’s FY 2018 agriculture appropriations bills. We are thankful that Congress recognizes the critical role of on-the-ground NRCS field staff who deliver and implement conservation services across the country; we will continue to work with congressional appropriators to ensure adequate funding for CTA in FY 2018 and 2019.

In addition to crippling USDA conservation programs, the budget request proposes to reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget by 23 percent. It would also eliminate one of EPA’s most popular and effective water quality programs, the 319 grants program, which has played a crucial role in helping states and other entities address nonpoint source water pollution.

Nutrition Assistance

NSAC and our allies in the anti-hunger and nutrition communities strongly oppose the President’s proposal to cut $217 billion from SNAP over the next ten years. SNAP not only connects millions of children and their families with healthy foods every year, it also expands market opportunities for family farmers. Although it is routinely framed as an urban assistance program, the percentage of rural families receiving SNAP assistance is actually higher than the percentage of urban families receiving assistance. By supporting both the family and the farmer, SNAP uplifts both urban and rural communities.

The President’s budget attempts to dismantle SNAP through a death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach. Last year, the President proposed undermining SNAP by making it a block grant program; this year’s proposals, however, are even more cruel and damaging. Among the most concerning proposals are those to: eliminate a portion of SNAP families’ spending power, replacing electronic benefits with food boxes of non-perishable goods; cutting off benefits for families with more than six people; and eliminating all spending on nutrition education.

Destabilizing our nation’s primary safeguard against hunger is not only inhumane, it also has the potential to completely derail the likelihood of a 2018 Farm Bill.

Research and Food Safety Outreach

The budget makes deep cuts to USDA’s research programs, including a 30 percent cut to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. This cut to SARE would reduce the program’s funding to just $19 million, despite the fact that the Senate has proposed to increase SARE funding to $30 million in FY 2018. The budget holds funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative flat at $375 million; however, this too could end up being a cut depending on what Congress includes in their final FY 2018 omnibus. Out of touch proposals like these will mean that farmers and ranchers are unable to access the cutting edge research that they need to respond to growing and evolving challenges.

The President also proposes a 14.5 percent ($173 million) cut to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and a severe 50 percent cut to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS). Ironically, even while slashing funding for ARS staff and programs, the addendum to the budget proposes to restore some funding for ARS buildings and facilities.

Organic research is also targeted in the budget proposal, which proposes to eliminate funding for the Organic Transitions program.

The Food Safety Outreach Program’s funding is left flat at $5 million; however, this level of funding is nowhere near sufficient to meet the needs of the 100,000+ farmers that are now facing new food safety regulations and need support understanding how to ensure their farm is in compliance.

Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

The President’s budget proposal exacerbates the challenges faced by historically underserved farmers and ranchers in America. The Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers program (also known as the Section 2501 Program) is the only USDA program explicitly dedicated to providing tools and resources to these communities. The FY 2019 budget request includes no discretionary funding for the Section 2501 Program, nor does it request renewed farm bill funding.

We are also very concerned that the budget request seems to eliminate both the Office of Advocacy and Outreach (OA&O), which administers the 2501 program, and the Office of Tribal Relations (OTR). As to be expected based on previous proposals, the budget request combines OA&O with the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership, OTR, and the Military Veterans Liaison to create a new “Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement” (OPPE). However, despite promises that “each office will retain its own character and identity,” the budget request asks appropriators to delete all references to both OAO and OTR.

Rural Development

As was the case with the President’s budget last year, this year’s proposal once again attacks rural communities through the proposed elimination of all discretionary funding for programs administered by USDA’s Rural Business and Cooperative Service (RBCS). RBCS includes the Rural Business Development Grants program, Rural Cooperative Development Grants, Business and Industry Loan Guarantee Program, the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas program, and the Value-Added Producer Grants program.

Without these critically important business and infrastructure development programs, rural communities will lose a key source of both investment capital and technical resources. Enterprise development and expansion will suffer and, as a result, population out-migration will increase.

Local and Regional Food Systems

While the FY 2019 budget request does not propose the elimination of the Farmer Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), as the President proposed in his FY 2018 request, it does propose cutting all funding for the Farmers Market Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC-FMNP). WIC-FMNP is a critically important program that helps particularly vulnerable populations access healthy food. Eliminating WIC-FMNP would increase hunger and lead to declining health outcomes among the American women and children in most need of increased access to fresh, healthy food.

We are also very concerned by the Administration’s proposal to “roll back or eliminate local and regional market reporting, including reporting of farmer’s markets and farm-to-school reporting” within the Agricultural Marketing Service’s (AMS) Market News. Market news provides critical access to market information for farmers and industry. This type of information is particularly important where demand and supply are rapidly evolving, as is the case with the rapidly growing market for locally and regionally produced foods.

Several of the aforementioned RBCS programs slated for elimination in the President’s budget would also have disproportionately adverse effects on local and regional food systems. Cutting the B&I program, which includes a local and regional food enterprise development set aside, and VAPG, which helps thousands of farmers tap into growing demand for locally and regionally produced food, would severely harm burgeoning farm-to-fork supply chains.

Farm Loans

The President’s budgeted levels for Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans are similar to FY 2017 levels, but with a small decrease for Direct Operating Loans and a larger $360 million decrease for Guaranteed Operating Loans. These numbers reflect the recent decline in demand for loans from farmers and ranchers across the country. As appropriators continue to consider loan funding levels for FY 2019, we encourage them to work closely with FSA to ensure that enough funding is allocated to meet demand.

Crop Insurance and Commodities

The budget has both hits and misses when it comes to commodity programs and crop insurance. On the positive end, the budget proposes long-needed changes that would eliminate loopholes in Title I subsidy programs. In particular, it proposes to prevent individuals and entities with little to no involvement in a farming operation from receiving farm program payments. This common sense proposal had been included in both the House and Senate’s version of the 2014 Farm Bill, but it was eliminated as part of a back room deal during conference negotiations. The budget also proposes to eliminate an extra $125,000 payment limit for peanuts and commodity certificates, both of which allow operations to circumvent the common sense payment limits supported by Congress.

When it comes to crop insurance reform, the budget proposal is largely a miss. Instead of applying thoughtful modernization reforms to premium subsidies, the budget takes a slash and burn approach, cutting premium subsidies for all farmers no matter the size of their operation. Such a heavy-handed approach threatens to unravel the farm safety net. NSAC recommends that the President focus instead on modernizing the federal crop insurance program by limiting taxpayer subsidies for the largest operations. The federal crop insurance program is critical to the strength of the farm safety net, but it needs to be modernized so that it is more efficient, effective, and works for all types and sizes of farm operations.

Additionally, the budget proposes to reduce premium subsides on policies with the Harvest Price Option (HPO) by 15 percentage points and by 10 percentage points for policies without HPO. HPO is the additional policy that allows farmers to choose whether to use the projected price or the harvest price to determine their indemnity, thus allowing them to hedge with little risk. This proposed change, unfortunately, will do nothing to stop the largest farms from leveraging unlimited crop insurance subsidies to outbid mid-scale and beginning farmers for scarce farmland.

Finally, the budget proposes to cap underwriting gains by crop insurance companies, lower the target rate of return, and limit eligibility for crop insurance for those with and Adjusted Gross Income over $500,000.

What Happens Next?

The President’s budget proposal is important because it sets the tone for the forthcoming budget and appropriations debates in Congress. Given that this is a farm bill year, the President’s budget proposal is especially important because of its potential to influence our most significant package of food and farm legislation.

Fortunately, the President’s budget proposal is just that – a proposal. Congressional appropriators are under no obligation to take all or even part of the President’s recommendations. In fact, as a result of a recently agreed to two-year budget deal, appropriators now have an additional $68 billion to spend in FY 2019, on top of the previously established spending cap.

In the coming weeks, the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee will host a hearing wherein USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue will have the chance to give his views on the President’s budget proposal. This hearing will effectively mark the kick-off of the congressional appropriations process for FY 2019.

As the FY 2018 appropriations cycle wraps up, and the FY 2019 cycle begins, NSAC will work with Congress to ensure that we build upon rather than undermine successful investments in food and agriculture programs.

Stay tuned to the NSAC blog for more updates and analysis as process unfolds.

The post President’s Budget Proposal Threatens Food, Farm, and Nutrition Programs appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Panelists at the February 2018 congressional food safety briefing sponsored by Representatives Fortenberry and Pingree. Photo credit: NSAC.

Food safety is always on farmers’ minds, but this year – with the Farm Bill on the horizon and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implementing its new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations – farmers will be closely following federal food safety policy debates. Last week, farmers and food safety advocates came to Washington D.C. to speak on a panel of experts as part of a congressional briefing hosted by Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME).

Farm Bill programs have long been a primary means of support for producers and processors interested in: accessing new markets (for which new or sometimes complex food safety plans may be required); implementing conservation co-management practices; accessing food safety training and technical assistance; and investing in new on-farm infrastructure. These resources are crucial for all farmers and processors, but especially for those facing additional regulatory requirements under FSMA. In order to ensure producers and processors are able to comply with the new regulations and keep their businesses going strong, is critical that the 2018 Farm Bill expand its investment in farmer support and outreach.

Representatives Fortenberry and Pingree, along with Representative Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), are committed to supporting food safety outreach, training, and assistance for farmers in the 2018 Farm Bill. The Local Food and Regional Markets Act (or the Local FARMS Act), which the Representatives introduced in October 2017, includes funding for several of the food safety programs highlighted during last week’s briefing, including the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP) and a new Food Safety Certification Cost Share program. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) was deeply involved in the creation of the Local FARMS Act, and strongly supports efforts to move these proposals forward in the next farm bill.

Highlights from the panel, which included two NSAC member organizations as well as representatives from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the United Fresh Produce Association, are detailed below.

Briefing Highlights

Organic farmer and President of the New England Farmers Union, Roger Noonan, moderated the panel, and also provided a farmer’s perspective on food safety challenges and solutions. Noonan emphasized that conservation practices provide myriad benefits, including decreasing a farm’s level of risk. Through practices commonly referred to as “co-management” (e.g., strategically developing wildlife habitat in certain areas of the farm to draw animals away from produce fields, or developing riparian buffers to improve water quality) help to make farms more resilient and better able to weather natural disasters, market fluctuations, and other unexpected obstacles.

Haile Johnston, Co-Founder and Chief Development Officer of The Common Market, made a strong case for increased investment in helping farmers attain food safety certification through direct technical as well as financial assistance. The Common Market is a distribution center (also known as a “food hub”) serving locations in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and now Houston. The organization has done extensive work over the last few years to help the farmers supplying the food hub to attain the food safety certifications required by wholesale and institutional markets. By working closely with their farmer and technical assistance partners, The Common Market was able to grow the number of farmer partners with food safety certifications from 10% to 100% in just four years. To facilitate this process, The Common Market relied on on a series of tools provided by farm bill programs, including: mock audits; GroupGAP trainings; financial assistance to cover audit costs; and support for on-farm improvements that may be required to meet GAP facilities requirements.

Roland McReynolds, Executive Director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA), spent his time focusing on the value of developing training programs tailored to the needs of diversified farms. Utilizing the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, Local Food Promotion Program, Risk Management Education Grants Program, and FSOP, CFSA has been able to develop and implement a food safety training program that has reached 500 farms across North and South Carolina. CFSA has assisted 130 farms in writing food safety plans and attaining GAP certification to date, and has seen firsthand the impact of this type of support. According to feedback from farmer participants, 72 percent of farms who received direct technical assistance from CFSA saw at least a $5,000 increase in income in the following year; 27 percent gained more than $30,000. Given the slim profit margins farmers face, this is a significant gain. However, McReynolds also cautioned that the costs associated with FSMA compliance have the potential to seriously dampen farmers’ profit margins. The impact of these costs on the longevity and sustainability of farm businesses was listed as one of several reasons why expanding support for training programs is so important in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Farm Bill Follow Up

Food safety is a top priority for all farmers, but for smaller-scale farmers and producers it can be particularly challenging to meet the demands of customers and regulators. With the American farm economy experiencing a multi-year downturn, family farms nationwide have increasingly found that connections to local and regional food opportunities can help them to create lasting economic success close to home. In order to connect with these new markets, however, proper food safety certifications are often required. The Local FARMS Act helps family farmers to better understand and comply with FDA’s new requirements by:

  • Expanding the FSOP, the food safety training program for small and medium sized family farmers, by providing $20 million per year in funding and prioritizing projects led by community-based organizations.
  • Creating a new Food Safety Certification Cost-share Program funded at $10 million per year to help family farmers comply with new food safety rules and regulations by upgrading on-farm food safety infrastructure and becoming food safety certified.

For more information on the Local FARMS Act, check out our 2018 Farm Bill resources page here.

The post Briefing Underscores Need for Farm Bill Investments in Food Safety appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Reana Kovalcik
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
202-547-5754, rkovalcik@sustainableagriculture.net

President’s Budget Seeks to Undermine Historic Investments in American Agriculture
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Urges Congress to Reject Anti-Farmer Proposals

Washington, DC, February 12, 2018 – The President’s FY 2019 budget request, released earlier today, is the most anti-rural, anti-farmer proposal the agriculture community has seen in years. If these proposals are realized, it will not just be America’s family farmers and ranchers that suffer – every one of us that depend on a safe, abundant, and sustainable food system will be affected.

“The proposals included in this budget request would undermine decades of investments in American agriculture,” said Greg Fogel, Policy Director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). “Farmers already facing major economic struggles will be further squeezed, rural communities will be at risk of losing desperately-needed tools and resources for job creation and enterprise development, low-income families will be denied critical nutrition support, and we will all feel the impact of a less sustainable food and agricultural system.”

Research

The President’s budget request guts agricultural research funding, cutting the Economic Research Service’s budget by nearly 50 percent, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program by 23 percent, and the Agricultural Research Service by 14.5 percent. As China, India, and other countries around the world continue to accelerate their investments in agricultural research, the President proposes to take America backward. Congress must reject these proposed cuts and instead invest in cutting edge research to help farmers and ranchers prepare for and respond to growing and evolving challenges.

Rural Development

The budget request continues the Administration’s direct assault on rural communities by proposing the elimination of USDA’s Rural Business and Cooperative Service (RBCS). RBCS is on the front lines of the fight against rural poverty, and has made tremendous strides to help rural businesses thrive. RBCS helps farmers, ranchers, and rural entrepreneurs create thousands of jobs each year – in 2015 and 2016, RBCS programs created or saved nearly 90,000 jobs. The elimination of RBCS and its business development programs would hamstring rural communities’ ability to create jobs and build vibrant economies.

Conservation

Farmers know that conservation is not just good for the environment; it’s also good for their bottom line. Interest in voluntary conservation programs has never been higher, and yet the President’s budget request seeks to undermine the very resources farmers rely on by privatizing conservation planning (currently administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) and eradicating the nation’s largest and most comprehensive conservation program, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

Over 72 million acres of farm, ranch, and forestland is currently enrolled in CSP – roughly eight percent of all agricultural land. This program, which helps producers improve soil health, water quality, and related natural resources, is so popular that thousands of qualified applicants routinely have to be turned away for lack of funds. In addition to CSP, the budget proposes to to eliminate the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which supports targeted conservation projects, administered in partnership with non-federal entities.

The proposal to eliminate CSP and RCPP proves that the White House is drastically out of touch with the needs of farmers and rural communities. USDA’s conservation programs are farmers’ first line of defense against drought, flooding, and other natural disasters – events that are increasingly more frequent. By undercutting one of farmers’ key risk management tools, the President’s budget puts American family farmers – and tax payers – at serious risk. The long-term costs to farmers, communities, taxpayers, and our shared natural resources of eliminating conservation support would be enormous, and Congress must therefore reject the Administration’s proposal.

Nutrition Assistance

Not even low-income American families escape attack in the President’s budget, which proposes $214 billion in reduced food assistance through massive cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Destabilizing our nation’s primary safeguard against hunger is not only cruel and inhumane; it also has the potential to completely derail the likelihood of a 2018 Farm Bill.

Commodities and the Farm Safety Net

On the issue of commodity programs and the farm safety net, the budget includes both hits and misses. On the positive side, it proposes long-needed changes that would eliminate loopholes in Title I subsidy programs. In particular, it limits farm operations to a single manager, as was included in both the House and Senate’s versions of the 2014 Farm Bill before the provision was eliminated in conference.

On crop insurance, the budget is largely a miss. Instead of making thoughtful adjustments to premium subsidy programs, the President proposes across the board cuts for all farmers, no matter the size. Rather than unraveling the farm safety net, the President should focus on modernizing the federal crop insurance program so that it is more efficient and effective and works for small and mid-size operations, beginning farmers, and rural communities.

Champions Needed in Congress

 NSAC urges Congress to reject the President’s budget proposal and instead put forward a FY 2019 budget that is good for farmers, good for the environment, and good for American families.

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About the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is a grassroots alliance that advocates for federal policy reform supporting the long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and rural communities. Learn more and get involved at: http://sustainableagriculture.net

The post RELEASE: President’s Budget Seeks to Undermine Historic Investments in American Agriculture appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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US Capitol. Credit: USDA

After months of negotiations, the House and Senate have finally reached a two-year budget deal to keep the government running, increase annual discretionary spending caps for defense and non-defense programs ($300 billion), and provide disaster relief ($89 billion). The Senate passed the bill 71-28 around 2am this morning, and the House followed shortly thereafter with a vote of 240-186. The agreement paves the way for the next critical step in the government funding process, appropriations.

The budget deal sets the parameters within which Congress can fund particular programs, but it does not dictate how much money each discretionary program will receive – the allocation of funds is left to the congressional appropriators. In a normal budgetary cycle, new appropriations bills would be passed annually before September 30, which is the end of the federal fiscal year. However, when appropriations are delayed, Congress typically passes a “Continuing Resolution” (CR), which keeps federal programs running at the previous fiscal year’s funding levels. Because there has been no overall budget deal until this week, the government has been operating under a series of CRs for the past four months, since the beginning of FY 2018. By raising the discretionary funding caps for two years, Congress has dramatically improved the odds that congressional appropriators will be able to finalize appropriations legislation for FY 2018, as well as for FY 2019 later this year.

In addition to raising spending limits, the deal includes yet another CR, the fifth since last October, extending FY 2017 funding levels through March 23. This timeline should give the Appropriations Committees time to hammer out the details of an omnibus appropriations bill that adjusts spending upward to the new budget caps.

In the sections below, we lay out some of the main takeaways from the nearly 700-page budget bill, including potential implications for the next farm bill.

Overview

In 2011, Congress passed a law that set overall discretionary spending caps for ten years. The annual spending caps are highly restrictive, making it extremely difficult for congressional appropriators to finalize and pass appropriations legislation. In an effort to smooth the path for appropriations legislation, Congress has raised the caps a number of times, including as part of this week’s budget deal.

The deal reached this week increases the non-defense discretionary spending cap by $63 billion in FY 2018 and $68 billion in FY 2019. It also increases the defense discretionary spending cap by $80 billion in FY 2018 and $85 billion in FY 2019.

In addition to raising spending caps, the two-year deal addresses a number of other hot-button budgetary issues, including but not limited to:

  • Extending the suspension of the U.S. debt limit until spring 2019
  • Providing more than $89 billion in disaster aid for areas hit by recent hurricanes and other natural disasters
  • Extending the Children’s Health Insurance Program through 2028 and extending various tax breaks
  • Adding billions of dollars to fight the opioid epidemic
  • Increasing farm bill spending for dairy and cotton commodity programs
What the Deal Means for Agriculture Appropriations

Under the newly agreed-to budget caps, congressional appropriators will have tens of billions of additional dollars to allocate to appropriations bills in FY 2018 and 2019. As a reminder, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have already passed agriculture appropriations bills for FY 2018. For a refresher of what is in those bills, visit our earlier blog posts.

Once Congress passes this week’s budget deal, appropriators will begin the process of allocating those additional dollars to the 12 appropriations subcommittees, including the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

It is critically important to the health of our food and farm systems that the agriculture appropriations bill receives its fair share of funding. Historically, agriculture has received around 3.5 percent of the overall funding for appropriations. If we use this as a guide, then agriculture’s fair share would be at least $2 billion in additional funding.

Like all appropriations bills, the agriculture bill has been suffering under the weight of the unsustainable domestic discretionary budget caps. The new budget caps will allow Congress to re-invest in groundbreaking research, farm credit programs, rural development, and training and outreach for farmers and ranchers. Many critical food and agriculture programs are already vastly over-subscribed, and additional funding would help to fill long-standing gaps in capacity and service.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) will be encouraging Congress to address high priority needs with the additional funding. Our priorities for increased investment in upcoming appropriations legislation include, but are not limited to: the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers, Farm Service Agency loan programs, and Food Safety Outreach Program. We will also urge appropriators from refrain from making any changes to mandatory conservation spending.

Setting the Stage for the Farm Bill

Typically, the annual budget process most directly affects agriculture because of its impact on appropriations bills. This year, however, there are a few unique issues that will have an outsized effect on the upcoming farm bill – chief among them is a deal on cotton and dairy/livestock programs, and the decision to offset budget costs through the use of sequester.

The budget agreement also includes a provision that ensures that any cuts that appropriators make to mandatory funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in FY 2018 do not carry over into the next funding estimate of available farm bill funding (known as a baseline). This was done by extending the EQIP authorization through 2019, thereby negating a rule that states that any cut made to farm bill direct spending in the final year of a farm bill (in this case, FY 2018) will carry forward for 10 years.

The Unique Case of Dairy/Livestock and Cotton 

There have been calls to modify the cotton and dairy provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill since the last years of the Obama Administration. Producers have said that the 2014 Farm Bill provisions have not provided the support they expected, and that changes were needed to keep the industries healthy. How to pay for those changes has been a major stumbling block in the development of the next farm bill.

Including increased support for cotton and dairy in this deal means the $1.2 billion in net additional support is treated like emergency spending and does not require offsetting cuts in other programs. By contrast, were the changes made in the new farm bill, Congress would be required to cut another set of farm bill programs by the same $1.2 billion, putting more pressure on the bill as a whole. Getting it out of the way in advance could potentially speed up consideration of the new farm bill, as a major obstacle is out of the way, or alternatively it could take the steam out of doing a new farm bill this year since two of the biggest problem areas have already been addressed. Only time will tell which way it goes. 

The cotton provision will make “seed” cotton (i.e., un-ginned cotton containing both the cotton ball and cottonseed) eligible for Price Loss Coverage (PLC) beginning with the 2018 crop year, thus moving cotton back into the Title I subsidy programs immediately. It sets the reference price at $.367 per pound. While it has been reported that the cotton provisions amount to over $3 billion in new spending for the anticipated cotton payments, the cost has been mostly offset by by changing most so-called “generic base acres” into seed cotton base acres and making seed cotton PLC participants ineligible for the special cotton Stacked Income Protection (STAX) crop insurance policy beginning in 2019.

Generic acres were created in 2014 when cotton was removed from title one, and essentially allowed farmers with generic base acres to assign them to whichever commodity they wanted. Congress created the STAX crop insurance policy in the 2014 Farm Bill as new, highly subsidized (80%) crop insurance policy that covered losses below 90 percent. Despite its highly subsidized features, it has been undersubscribed from the start and never fully utilized by cotton producers.

It does appear that since farmers signing up for the new seed cotton PLC in the 2018 crop year will not be ineligible for STAX until 2019 that cotton farmers will be able to take advantage of both programs this year.

The dairy provision is actually several of changes that will inject just over $1 billion in a variety of ways to support dairy producers. Dairy producers have expressed concern about the how the Dairy Margin Protection Program, created in the 2014 Farm Bill, has provided little benefit to farmers for the premiums they have paid. They have also sought out other changes to programs such as the crop insurance program that will potentially allow new dairy focused insurance products. The new dairy provisions will:

  • Lower or eliminate premiums for the dairy margin protection program for small and medium sized farms.
  • Waive fees for beginning, veteran, young, and underserved farmers.
  • Modify the timing of the margin calculation from every two months to ever month.
  • Allow farmers to modify their level of participation immediately for 2018.
  • Remove the $20 million cap on livestock related crop insurance policy costs to allow for the creation of new dairy focused insurance products. Removal of the cap will also ultimately allow more livestock to be insured as part of the Whole Farm Revenue Protection program.
  • Remove the $125,000 payment limit on the Livestock Indemnity Program.
Sequestration

Not all the news from the budget deal is good news for the farm bill. As part of a small set of offsets for the entire budget deal package, the bill extends automatic budget cuts (aka, sequestration) for mandatory programs for an additional two years, through 2027. Sequestration affects farm bill commodity and conservation programs, as well as many other government programs outside of agriculture.

The sequestration provision added to the budget deal reduces potential farm bill spending by more than the cotton and dairy provisions add. It also further locks in place the lazy approach to congressional budgeting. Each time Congress makes a major government spending decision in recent years, it tacks on a few more years of mindless automatic sequestration to make a statement about fiscal responsibility.

Using the farm bill as an example, with the additional years tacked on by the new budget deal, over the course of the next nine years, farm bill commodity and conservation payments to farmers will be cut by over $6 billion not because of a farm bill decision or for any rational reason or in any rational way, but just to help save face. NSAC will continue to urge Congress to turn away from this mindless, meat ax approach and return to sound, fair, and thoughtful budget policy.

The post What the Budget Deal Means for American Agriculture appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Photo Credit: USDA 

The deadline for those interested in the 2018 Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation’s largest conservation program, is less than one month away. CSP is a valuable resource for farmers, ranchers, and forest owners interested in increasing the sustainability and long-term profitability of their lands. More than 72 million acres of farmland, ranchland, and forestland are currently enrolled nationwide. (For a detailed analysis of the most recent enrollment data, see NSAC’s recently published CSP Special Report.)

In order to ensure that interested farmers and ranchers have all the information and resources they need to successfully apply for CSP, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has released its CSP 2018 Information Alert, which includes step-by-step guidance and enrollment information.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced March 2, 2018 as the submission deadline for those applying for the 2018 enrollment opportunity. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which administers the program, is set to enroll 10 million new acres this year. Farmers and ranchers who enrolled in 2014 will also be able to re-enroll for an additional 5-year contract. NSAC will provide updated materials when the renewals deadline and additional information is made available.

Throughout the coming weeks, farmers and ranchers will be taking time out of their busy schedules to determine if conservation programs like CSP are right for their operations. NSAC’s Information Alerts are a free online resource that help producers stay up to date on all the latest program information and deadlines so that conservation is an easy choice to make. The only thing a farmer needs to submit by the March 2 deadline is an initial basic application that is used for all NRCS conservation programs. If selected, applicants will work closely with NRCS on the details of their contract for the years that follow.

Reinvented Tools, Resources, and Provisions Explained

As part of last year’s sign-up, NRCS rolled out major changes to CSP as part of a comprehensive program “reinvention.” Although NRCS began implementing these changes last year, interested producers may still be unaware of the updates and how they may affect their application and/or contracts. The Information Alert includes details on all changes that were made as part of the 2017 CSP reinvention, including the following provisions:

  • New eligibility tool – A significant component of the 2017 reinvention was the shift away from the Conservation Measure Tool (CMT) to the Conservation Activity Evaluation Tool (CAET) to determine if applicants are meeting CSP’s minimum stewardship threshold requirements. Based on an applicant’s current level of stewardship, CAET identifies conservation activities that could be adopted to address additional resource concerns.
  • New ranking tool – Instead of replacing the CMT with only one new tool, NRCS created three: a new evaluation tool (CAET), ranking tool (the Application, Evaluation, and Ranking Tool (AERT)), and payment schedule. The CSP AERT is a variation on the AERT that is already used within the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This tool will be used to rank eligible applications within local ranking pools; the highest scoring applications will receive contract offers first.
  • Continuation of the minimum contract payment – Beginning in 2016, USDA set the minimum contract payment for all successful applicants at $1,500 per year, a change NSAC has long advocated for. The $1,500 minimum is available to all farmers, which helps to ensure that the program properly incentives and supports all size operations in participation. The minimum payment limit applies to all new contracts enrolled in 2018, as well as expiring contracts that will renew in 2018.
  • Added flexibility for mid-contract changes – Beginning last year, NRCS provides added flexibility for mid-contract modifications. This applies to conservation practice or enhancement changes that might occur due to changing markets or to reflect how the land responds to newly added conservation, as well as to circumstances wherein a producer loses a lease and must subtract land from their CSP contract.
  • Expanded options for enhancements, practices, and bundles – The list of conservation activities for 2018 includes a total of 223 individual conservation enhancements, 78 conservation practices, and 35 bundles (suites of enhancements) that are eligible for CSP. The 2017 reinvention created a direct linkage between conservation practices and enhancements, assigning new enhancement codes that link the base practice to the purpose being addressed. NSAC’s CSP Information Alert includes a detailed illustration of how the new enhancements and bundles were restructured and renamed.
  • Redesigned payment structure – A major component of the 2017 reinvention was the restructuring of how CSP payments are determined – including annual payments for improving, maintaining, and managing existing operations and installing and adopting additional conservation activities. Annual payments will be determined by the following components: maintenance (existing activity) payments, additional activity payments, and supplemental payments for resource conserving crop rotations, all of which are described in detail in the Information Alert.
Less than One Month to Sign up in 2018 

NSAC encourages farmers and ranchers to submit an initial application for CSP by the March 2 deadline. The 2018 CSP Information Alert, as well as NSAC’s Farmers’ Guide to the Conservation Stewardship Program, provide valuable support and resources to ensure participants have what they need to submit a successful application. We will continue to provide updates on the renewals process as well as any additional information on the sign up as it becomes available.

The post New Resource for Conservation Stewardship Program Applicants appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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NSAC Policy Council meets to set priorities for 2018. Photo Credit: Sarah Hackney

Last week, NSAC held its annual Winter Meeting in Washington, DC. This year’s meeting was held at the Kellogg Conference Hotel at Gallaudet University and was generously sponsored by Annie’s Homegrown, Clif Bar, Organic Valley, and Patagonia.

Over 100 members representing the majority of NSAC’s 120 member organizations convened over four days in the nation’s capital to discuss the 2018 Farm Bill and NSAC’s priorities for the coming year. This year’s Winter Meeting also featured an NSAC Lobby Day on Capitol Hill and a 30th anniversary celebration with members, partners, and allies.

NSAC Policy Council Sets Priorities for 2018

Every year, NSAC’s Policy Council convenes at the Coalition’s Winter Meeting to adopt policy priorities for the coming year. Coalition priorities are collaboratively set by all NSAC members over a multi-month process that begins each fall, but the responsibility falls to the Policy Council to approve the final slate of priorities. This is not an easy task, as there are many important issues related to our food and farming system that need to be addressed in the next farm bill. After hours of deliberation, the Coalition approved priorities for NSAC’s 2018 farm bill and appropriations work.

Farm Bill Campaigns

Given the important role of the farm bill in setting national food and farm priorities (for four years at a time, longer when there are delays), NSAC will be focusing the bulk of the Coalition’s energy in 2018 on advancing a family-farmer forward bill. The first stage of this work is the development and promotion of “marker bills,” which are bills that lay the foundation for what will eventually be the farm bill’s final language. NSAC is actively working with our allied organizations and partners in Congress to advance marker bills that align with the Coalitions 2018 priorities. There are several bills that have already been introduced in Congress, around which the Coalition is currently mobilizing the sustainable agriculture community. Marker bills that NSAC is actively endorsing include:

In addition to policy priorities, the Coalition also sets priorities for action an appropriations legislation (the process through which programs are allocated funding by Congress).

Appropriations Priorities

  • Farm Bill Conservation Funding – The farm bill, not the appropriations bill, funds the major USDA conservation financial assistance programs, yet both the Administration and congressional appropriators often attempt to use farm bill conservation funding as a piggy bank to pay for unrelated discretionary spending. NSAC’s goal in 2018 is to defend against any such raids and protect critical farm bill conservation programs from these backdoor cuts.
  • Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers (2501 Program) – The 2501 program had its annual mandatory farm bill funding cut in half under the last Farm Bill, even as Congress expanded the program to also include veteran farmers. This dramatic reduction of funding has had severe repercussions and stifled the ability of organizations to serve the needs of the growing number of minority and veteran farmers seeking support and technical assistance, and this funding shortfall needs to be addressed through either the upcoming farm bill or annual appropriations.
  • Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP) – NSAC seeks to ensure FSOP provides ample funding for direct farmer training projects, and to ensure that funds are directed toward on-the-ground training projects that benefit small and mid-sized family farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, organic and sustainable farms, and local food enterprises.
  • Farm Service Agency (FSA) Loans – Direct farm loans provide crucial capital for beginning farmers and others not adequately served by commercial credit. This is critical in light of the period of low commodity prices and tightening credit markets that farmers have been experiencing for several years now. There are debates in Congress on whether or not the next Farm Bill should raise loan limits, which would put a tighter squeeze on limited loan funding that has seen increased demand in recent years. Over the next year, NSAC will be fighting to make sure that FSA loan funding is protected for those least well served by private lenders – especially smaller-scale, beginning, and minority farmers.
  • Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) – SARE remains the only USDA competitive research program with a clear and consistent focus on farmer-driven research. Despite SARE’s popularity and demonstrated administrative efficiency, after 30 years of proven on-the-ground results, it is still not yet funded at even half of its authorized amount. As a result, USDA can fund only seven percent of eligible research and education pre-proposals. We will seek to build on SARE’s last three decades of successful research and given it a long-overdue funding boost to prepare farmers for the challenges of the next 30 years.
Senator Jon Tester Addresses the Coalition
Senator Tester addresses NSAC members. Photo Credit Violet King

On Tuesday morning, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) addressed coalition members before they headed out to their meetings on Capitol Hill. Tester, a third generation organic grain farmer from Havre, Montana, opened his talk by discussing his family’s farming legacy, their switch to organics in the 1980s and the importance of making sustainable agriculture policy a priority in the upcoming farm bill. His remarks touched on the ever growing trends of consolidation on a global scale and the impact it has had on small family farmers.

He also spoke about the need for more research for organics and publicly owned and available seeds. Tester also emphasized the need to push for more opportunities for beginning farmers in his home state of Montana and nationwide, as rural areas in America have faced a steady decline in population and economic opportunities. Tester, who has served in the Senate for 11 years, made his first trip to Washington, DC for NSAC’s first farmer fly in in 1988. NSAC was honored to have Senator Tester speak to members before their meetings on the hill.

On the Hill

An unexpected government shutdown, which began on Friday, January 19th, had many members wondering if they would be able to meet with their congressional delegations on Tuesday. Thankfully, however, the shutdown ended on Monday just as members were wrapping up their first full day of issue committee and council meetings. With everything back up and running, NSAC members were able to head to the Hill to meet with their Members of Congress and select agency leadership.

With over 100 meetings scheduled between them, NSAC Members had a big task ahead of them. Members, in many cases accompanied by farmers from their home states and districts, descended on the Hill throughout the day, meeting with their congressional representatives and sharing their stories and priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill.

NSAC’s Michigan Delegation meets with Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). Photo Credit Violet King

In some cases, members were even able to join together to hold group meetings. For example, an entire delegation of Michigan-based NSAC members partnered up to meet with eight Michigan legislative offices over the course of the day. In one of their meetings, Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) spoke at length with Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) about the wide range of services and outreach they provide to historically underserved, veteran and beginning farmers in Michigan.

During the meeting, MIFFS emphasized the farm bill programs that were most crucial for their work and for their constituents, including: the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Section 2501 Program. These programs have helped MIFFS to provide critical training and assistance to farmers in their state. One way they have used support from these programs in the past was by using grant funds to set up satellite USDA technical assistance stations in Detroit, which assisted farmers with navigating the USDA grant and loan application system. Staff members from Michigan Farmers Market Association and Fair Food Network also contributed their stories and expertise to these meetings. Key programs and policies for their work and constituents included local/regional food and farmers’ market programs, such as the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program.

Celebrating 30 Years

NSAC members wrapped up their day on Capitol Hill at the Credit Union House, where Coalition members, friends, and allies celebrated 30 years of achievements in sustainable agriculture policy and advocacy. NSAC was formally formed in 2009, but the two organizations that merged to found the Coalition (the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture) had been leading the movement since 1988 and 1994, respectively. Since the merger of those two formidable organizations, NSAC has become a 120+ member coalition whose reach spans nearly the entire country. Many of today’s NSAC members have been together since before the merger, giving the Coalition collective decades of experience and wisdom. 2018 marks NSAC’s sixth farm bill; there are only about two dozen Members of Congress still in office who have seen that many bills come and go!

The Coalition celebrated not just it’s own achievements, but also those of the hardworking agricultural staff on Capitol Hill. Congressional staff were honored with “Champions of Sustainability” awards from the Coalition for their tireless work in advancing sustainable agriculture.

Members celebrate NSAC’s 30th anniversary at the Credit Union House. Photo Credit Reana Kovalcik

The post NSAC Members Convene in Washington DC to Set 2018 Priorities appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) American Indian/Alaska Native Employee Association (AIANEA) American Indian Drum Group. Photo credit: USDA.

Editor’s Note: This blog post is the third and final post in a three-part blog series by NSAC Policy Intern Noah McDonald, which examines how the Farm Bill can take steps to advance racial equity within the food system. The first post discussed the historical context and foundations for racial inequities with the food system. The second post spoke to some of the present-day issues that farmers of color and farm/food advocates face, as well as the policies that USDA has put into place to amend its wrongdoing. This post will propose some solutions and examine what institutional changes are needed to achieve greater racial equity in the 2018 Farm Bill and beyond.

With the 2018 Farm Bill on the horizon, there is no better or more urgent time than now to be discussing the role of racial equity in agriculture, and working together to find solutions. The farm bill is a rare beast – it only comes around every four years (notwithstanding delays), and includes multiple titles of legislation that will allocate billions of dollars of funding and services across the food and farm system. The gravity of this bill makes it the perfect vehicle through which to address systemic racial inequities in our agricultural system through thoughtful and impactful public policy.

As discussed in the first post in this series, Contexts and Foundations, it is vitally important that advocates and policymakers alike understand, speak to, and reflect upon the massive extent to which our current food and agricultural system is built upon the exploitation of communities of color throughout history and into the present day.

The second post in this series, Barriers for Farmers of Color, examined some of the ways in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other government agencies have worked to remedy past discrimination. Still we have a long way to go in addressing the historical exploitation and oppression of farmers of color, farmworkers, and immigrant farmers who still face major barriers and challenges within agriculture.

This final post will build upon this important historical context and discuss specific ways that the next farm bill can rectify and correct past discrimination and present-day marginalization, both from fine-grained policy changes to big picture cultural and institutional changes.

Farm Bill Recommendations

As Congress moves forward with reauthorizing the farm bill (which expires on September 30th), it is critical that the voices of farmers and food/farm advocates clamoring for racial equity and justice are heard. The 2018 Farm Bill is an opportunity to swiftly and strongly address racial inequities in our food/farm system, as well as an opportunity to set an example of what an equity-forward bill looks like for future reauthorizations.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has outlined a series of policy solutions designed to address the challenges facing farmers of color today in their recently published 2018 Farm Bill platform: An Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill.

While a large and extensive document covering an array of farm bill issues, NSAC’s farm bill platform includes a focus on policy priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill that can takes steps to increase racial equity within the food and farm system. Some of NSAC’s key positions on racial equity in food and farming issues include:

  1. Restore funding to help minority farmers and ranchers to capitalize on opportunities to start and manage farming businesses

In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress provided $75 million in mandatory funding for the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as the Section 2501 Program) This funding represented nearly $20 million a year through fiscal years (FY) 2009-2012. Unfortunately, the 2014 Farm Bill drastically cut mandatory funding for the program, from $20 million to $10 million per year. To make matters worse, this cut in funding was applied at the same time Congress expanded the program to also address the needs of military veterans.

This decision ultimately shrank resources for both veterans and socially disadvantaged farmers, and has hampered the program from meeting the needs of either population. With demand for federal resources and technical assistance from returning military veterans only continuing to grow, it is essential that Congress not only reauthorize and restore funding for this long-standing program, but also scale-up investments to ensure that the 2501 Program is actually serving the needs of those it’s intended to serve.

  1. Increase participation by farmers of color in working lands conservation programs

Previous farm bills have included special incentives to improve access to conservation programs for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, including funding set-asides and increased cost-share rates within both the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

The current statutory set-asides have not been adjusted since they were first established in 2008, and while these incentives have been successful in promoting increased participation by farmers of color, they are long-overdue for adjustments. Farmers of color (considered “socially disadvantaged” by USDA) are often less likely to have the resources needed to invest in conservation on their farms, and should continue to be a priority for funding through both CSP and EQIP. 

  1. Ensure Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans remain available to socially disadvantaged farmers by opposing increases on loan limits

Over the past two decades, Congress has set aside federal loan dollars and established goals to reach beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers within FSA farm loan programs. FSA loan programs have filled an important gap in financing for those unable to secure credit in the private market, and has been vital in providing access to credit for small and mid-size family farms, including new and beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers.

Direct operating loans in particular, are the lifeblood of many new farm operations. Without these loans, many new and underserved farmers do not have enough start-up capital or accrued assets or revenue to afford the up-front costs of starting or maintaining a farming operation (in addition to paying the up-front production costs associated with nearly every farm’s annual growing season).

There is much debate in Congress about whether or not to raise these loan limits in the next farm bill, which would ultimately mean fewer but larger loans (unless Congress also provides additional funding through appropriations). This change would dramatically impact the ability of farmers of color to access credit, and would send a devastating ripple effect throughout the farm community, save the larger farms who would benefit from larger loans.

As this debate continues, NSAC will be opposing attempts to raise individual loan limits on FSA operating loans in order to ensure that farmers least served by private lenders are able to access the operating capital they need to maintain a viable farming operation. 

  1. Secure permanent funding to continue training the next generation of farmers

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) is the only federal program that is explicitly dedicated to training the next generation of farmers and ranchers, and includes a dedicated funding priority for projects that train socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. In a recent evaluation of the program, over half of all funded projects served socially disadvantaged farmers – including immigrants, refugees, tribal, and other farmers of color – as their primary audience. This program is one of a handful of innovative and essential farm programs that expire this year with the expiration of the current farm bill. In order to continue to break down barriers to entry and create a viable pathway into agriculture for the next generation of farmers, NSAC will be fighting to make sure that BFRDP is fully funded in the next farm bill.

  1. Create a dedicated position, information clearinghouse, and technical assistance within USDA to support producers engaged in urban agriculture

Urban agriculture has a number of potential benefits for urban communities and farmers of color, such as economic and landscape revitalization, cultural restoration, and increasing access to fresh and healthy food for food insecure communities. With the exception of the Community Food Project grant program, USDA lacks explicit policies and program that sufficiently meet the needs of aspiring and existing urban agricultural producers. And while an urban agriculture liaison position at USDA is a good first step in recognizing the importance of urban agriculture and the role it plays in addressing food insecurity, USDA must also make a firm and concerted effort to promote urban agricultural enterprises that create economic opportunities for the people living and working in those same urban communities, and not further the marginalization of those living in urban communities.

* For more information on how urban agriculture can promote racial equity and justice within our food system, see this article.

Beyond the Farm Bill

The farm bill is an excellent vehicle for change because of the substantial and long-lasting policy changes it inherently includes. There are, however, many critical racial equity issues within our food and farm system that are currently not addressed (or cannot be properly addressed) through the farm bill. Below, we include examples of three major racial equity issues currently absent or ill addressed in farm bill debates. 

Justice for Farmworkers

One of the most crucial pieces missing from the farm bill debate is the living and working conditions of migrant and seasonal farmworkers, as many of the policy provisions (and changes that are needed) do not fall within the jurisdiction of the farm bill.

* For more information on labor laws that impact farmworkers in this country, please visit this article.

Although much of the federal policy around migrant and seasonal farmworkers is not determined through the farm bill, it is nonetheless important to speak to the issues and struggles that farmworkers face. Some farmworkers are engaged in agriculture in the U.S. via the current agricultural guest worker program known as H2-A but a majority are not and many of those workers are undocumented. The current H2-A programs is very prescriptive; thus it discourages workers from defending their rights, separates families, and does not allow currently undocumented workers into the program.

The first agricultural guest worker program in the United States was called the Bracero Program. Over 4 million Mexican citizens were employed in the agricultural industry in the United States between 1942 and 1964 under this program. Many of them were denied sanitary housing, access to medical care, round-trip transportation, and the prevailing wage for their work and crops harvested. This program was ended because of its problems, and any new program must ensure its mistakes are not repeated.

Comprehensive immigration reform is absolutely necessary to end the problems associated with undocumented workers who reside in the United States – many of whom are engaged in farm labor. NSAC has several recommendations on how to address the current issues facing undocumented farmworkers, which are outlined in NSAC Principles on Immigration Reform.

* For more information on guest worker programs, read Farmworker Justice’s report on H2-A, No Way to Treat a Guest, which details the history of agricultural guest worker programs in the United States and how the system can abuse workers.

Reparations and Support for Black Farmers

After Emancipation, African American farmers and farmworkers faced violence and formalized discrimination from all sides, including the county, state, and the USDA. In response, many African Americans, especially in the Southeast, formed cooperatives during the early Civil Rights Era, one of the most prominent being the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

While some existing programs, such as 2501, are helping to support and create opportunities for Black farmers, much more must be done. Black land loss and lack of intergenerational transfer of land remains a significant problem to this day. In addition, the average age of African American farmers is much higher than other farmers – 62 compared to 58.3. Reversing a more rapidly aging farming population, addressing historic inequities related to land access, and training for new generations of Black farmers are all imperative structural changes that are needed. Given both its history of discrimination, and the immense amount of knowledge and financial resources, USDA must confront these issues and do its part to continue to support the growth and prosperity of Black farmers.

Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Native peoples have been engaged in agriculture in North America for millennia. Before European settlement, Indigenous peoples were engaging in agriculture and farming in vastly distinct dynamic, and ingenious ways. Native people also had control over food production and distribution in their communities. Unfortunately, many factors have contributed to the destruction of Native food sovereignty, including widespread land theft, depletion and destruction of the land caused by European settlement, and federal farming policies such as the Dawes Act.

Presently, we are facing an unprecedented crossroads and opportunity to support Indigenous agriculture, and many food justice organizers are calling for a revitalization of traditional foodways. Federal legislators and USDA can begin initial steps in this year’s farm bill to support this process.

* For more information on how you can support the development of Indigenous agriculture, check out the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative’s platform for the 2018 Farm Bill: Regaining Our Future: An Assessment of Risks and Opportunities for Native Communities in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Tying it All Together

In order to address the structural and historical racial inequities within our food and farming systems, we must have commitment from federal policy makers and from USDA.

Present-day patterns of exclusion, marginalization, and disinvestment must be reversed. Processes must be changed to make programs relevant, accessible, and effective to communities of color, barriers lowered, and outreach extended. And most importantly, material restitution and reparations must be given to correct past disinvestment.

In this post we’ve looked at some of the immediate steps that can be taken in the 2018 Farm Bill, as well as speaking more broadly to how we can chart a course for a more sustainable and equitable food system. However, we have still not scratched the surface when it comes to giving a accounting for and addressing the full scope of racial inequities that exist within our food and farm system today.

As part of our development of a more equitable food and farming system, we must seek to uplift the fundamental value of all beings – including the persons, plants, animals, and land of our agricultural and food systems, which support us all.

* For more information and/or ideas towards a big picture framework for dismantling racism in the food system, we recommend this article, 4 Not-So-Easy Ways to Dismantle Racism in the Food System.

The post Racial Equity in the Farm Bill: Recommendations and Opportunities appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Earlier this month, roughly 200 conservation, agriculture, wildlife, taxpayer and sportsmen organizations signed on to a letter of support for the American Prairies Conservation Act (S. 1913, H.R. 3939), introduced by Senators John Thune (R-SD), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mike Rounds (R-SD), and Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Representatives Kristi Noem (R-SD) and Tim Walz (D-MN). This critical piece of legislation expands and improves a grassland conservation provision known as “Sodsaver,” which was first included in the 2008 Farm Bill and was strengthened in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Sodsaver limits the loss of native grasslands by reducing federal subsidies for crop insurance premiums on acres that are converted from prairie to cropland. By reducing the federal premium subsidy, Sodsaver puts the risk of producing crops on converted prairie back in the hands of the farmers doing the conversion.

The current version of Sodsaver applies to six states – Nebraska, Iowa, Montana, Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota. The American Prairies Conservation Act would extend the provision to the entire country, including areas in Texas, Kansas, and other states that are experiencing some of the highest grassland loss rates.

The letter, addressed to House and Senate Agriculture Committee leadership, states:

The 2014 Farm Bill included a Sodsaver provision that reduces crop insurance premium subsidies on newly broken native sod, ensuring that taxpayer dollars do not create incentives for more native prairie land to be plowed under. Most of the land that is currently being converted from native ecosystems to cropland is marginal, highly erodible, or prone to flooding. These environmentally sensitive lands provide critical ecological services, including habitat for grassland-dependent wildlife species, flood mitigation, erosion control, water filtration, and other ecological benefits. In addition to providing ecosystem services, native grasslands are a critical resource for American ranchers[…]

The undersigned organizations applaud Senators Thune, Klobuchar, Rounds, and Bennet and Representatives Noem and Walz for their leadership in preserving grazing land, ranching opportunities, and critical wildlife habitat and other natural resources through the American Prairies Conservation Act. We strongly urge you to include this provision in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The destruction of native prairies for crop production results in fewer ranching and hunting opportunities, weaker ecosystems, increased soil erosion, and decreased revenue for rural communities. In addition to extending Sodsaver protections to the entire country, the American Prairies Conservation Act stems grassland loss by:

  • Closing a loophole that allows producers to skirt Sodsaver disincentives by converting prairie to a non-insured, non-annual crop (e.g. alfalfa) before planting to an insured, annual crop (e.g. corn).
  • Requiring USDA to track and report on grassland loss by county.

We hope that a national Sodsaver provision will be included in the 2018 Farm Bill and look forward to working on this issue with members of Congress and with the hundreds of organizations that have joined in support of the American Prairies Conservation Act.

For more information on the American Prairies Conservation Act, visit NSAC’s Farm Bill Campaign page. While the sign-on letter has already been delivered, organizations that wish to show their support may still sign on here.

The post Hundreds of Groups Support the American Prairies Conservation Act appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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