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
- Working Lands Conservation Programs – Helping to ensure our nation’s largest investments in conservation practices on working agricultural lands maximize their impact.
- Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers – Cultivating the next generation of farmers and ranchers in order to keep our agricultural economy strong.
- Crop Insurance Modernization – Laying the groundwork for the 2018 Farm Bill to make the federal crop insurance program more effective, harmonized, and efficient.
- Local and Regional Food Systems – Building a better future for family farms by catalyzing food and farm entrepreneurship.
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:
- Local FARMS Act (S1947, HR3941)
- Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act (HR4316)
- Crop Insurance Modernization Act (HR4865)
- Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act (HR4751)
- American Prairies Conservation Act (S1913, HR3939)
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).
- 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
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.
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.
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