Capitol Hill was buzzing last week with hundreds of people in town for meetings with their Congress members in advance of the next farm bill and upcoming fiscal year (FY) 2019 appropriations decisions. Among the crowds and long lines were 20 farmers and farm advocates in town for NSAC’s March “farmer fly-in” – grassroots events wherein the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) brings farmers and advocates from across the country to DC to speak directly with decision makers on the Hill about the programs and policies they care about.
This month’s fly-in participants pulled double duty, speaking to their Congress members both about the importance of providing discretionary funding for crucial food and farm programs, and also educating their representatives about the farm bill programs that help keep their businesses profitable and environmentally sustainable.
Many of our “ag-vocates” made long trips and took precious time off from family and farm to be in DC last week – and some even battled multiple feet of snow and closed roads thanks to spring snowstorms! No matter how long or arduous the journey, all of our fly-in participants were dedicated to making their voices heard on federal food and farm policy as decisions are being made in DC that will affect them, their families, and their communities.
Equally dedicated were NSAC’s many supporters, who rallied together to help raise the funds needed to support this very important fly-in event. In addition to the many folks across the country who made individual donations, we would also like to specially recognize and thank the Claneil Foundation, whose generous gift made it possible for us to fly, feed, and transport our fantastic fly-in participants.
Farmers and advocates came into DC from all across the country. In total, 14 different states were represented during this fly-in, including: Alabama, California, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington. Farmers and advocates covered a range of topics in their meetings, including beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, working lands conservation, organic and local food, and crop insurance modernization.
Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers
Many of this month’s fly-in participants were beginning farmers, farmers of color, military veterans, or advocates who served those communities. Because these communities of farmers face unique and particularly intractable challenges (e.g., challenges to starting farm businesses, receiving equitable access to services, and maintaining successful operations), NSAC and many other advocacy organizations have fought to develop and maintain programs specifically targeted at supporting them. One federal program in particular, the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, (commonly known as the “2501 Program”) is unique in that for decades it has been the only farm bill program dedicated to addressing the specific needs of farmers of color. The program was recently expanded in the last farm bill to also serve military veterans.
Melvin Russell, a veteran farmer of color who drove all the way from his farm in Tchula, Mississippi to join the NSAC fly-in, has seen the impact that the 2501 Program can have firsthand.
“This program has created a marriage between farmers, veterans, schools, and community. It helps us all to thrive together,” said Russell.
Russell works with Mileston Cooperative, which utilizes support from both 2501 and the Farm to School Grant Program to operate a program that gives students from local schools the opportunity to learn about their food and farming by working directly with the cooperative’s farmers. Students not only learn farming skills, they also learn to give back through the cooperative’s “5 Mile Meal” program, which provides free, fresh vegetables to local seniors.
“I initiated the program because there were a lot of seniors in the area that had poor health and wanted fresh veggies but had no access,” said Russell. “In some places, everything is at your fingertips, in the country your closest supermarket or store may be 15 or 20 miles from your residence. You don’t get to walk out the door and walk two blocks for something to eat, if you walk two blocks you’re in the middle of a forest or a field – and there’s nothing to eat there.”
Russell and Mileston Cooperative also work with veterans in their community; members of the cooperative lease one-acre plots to local veterans, and give them the skills and practice to run their own operations in the future.
In spite of the significant benefit throughout the Tchula community in central Mississippi, and many other communities across the country that the 2501 Program has impacted, support for the program in Congress remains uncertain. When the 2014 Farm Bill expanded 2501 to also include veteran farmers, it halved the program’s funding at the same time, nearly crippling its ability to effectively reach and serve underserved farmers in both communities.
Section 2501 is one of several “tiny but mighty” farm bill programs (i.e., programs with small budgets but significant impacts) that NSAC is actively advocating for in the upcoming farm bill and appropriations debates. The program’s mandatory farm bill funding runs out in FY 2019, and will require direct action by Congress in order to stay operational. NSAC urges Congress to increase discretionary funding for the 2501 Program by $10 million, and to restore its mandatory funding in the upcoming farm bill to previous levels.
In addition to Section 2501, several fly-in participants spoke to their representatives about the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act (H.R. 4316), a farm bill marker bill that lays out a national strategy to break down barriers to entry and give real support to our next generation of farmers and ranchers. NSAC is actively encouraging Congress members to co-sponsor this bill, originally introduced in the House by Representatives Tim Walz (D-MN) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), and advocates for its inclusion in full in the upcoming farm bill.
Working Lands Conservation
Half of all the March fly-in participants had conservation and/or organic programs and policies on their agendas, which makes sense given the boost that programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) have given both to farmers’ bottom lines and to our shared natural resources.
“I want to leave our farm in better shape than it’s in now, in better shape for my son,” said Cameron Peirce a fifth generation no-till grain farmer from Kansas.
Peirce was awarded his first CSP contract in 2004, and was one of the first ones in his community to try out the voluntary conservation program. Over the years, he has used both CSP and EQIP to improve and maintain the conservation practices on his farm, including cover cropping, developing beneficial habitats for pollinators, and for terracing. During his visit to DC, Peirce spoke about the importance of supporting conservation programs with Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) (Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee) and Jerry Moran (R-KS), as well as Representatives Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and Roger Marshall (R-KS).
Conservation programs like CSP and EQIP provide farmers and ranchers with the tools, training, and financial support they need to protect and conserve natural resources on their land. These programs have the double benefit of protecting and enhancing the environment, while also helping farmers to increase yields and profits.
Katie Coppoletta, owner and operator of Fiddlehead Farm in Corbett, Oregon, credits the farm’s success in part to the support they’ve received from federal conservation and research programs.
“In the 10 years Fiddlehead Farm has been in operation,” said Coppoletta, “we have seen steady growth, largely due to the support we have received from federal programs. We’ve been able to get assistance for planting cover crops that put nutrients back into the soil and increase water retention, as well as help to build high tunnels that allow us to keep growing even when the weather isn’t ideal.”
Demand for these conservation programs has steadily risen over the last decade, but thanks to routine raids on conservation program funds through a backdoor appropriations process called “Changes in Mandatory Program Spending” or “CHIMPS,” program administrators routinely have to turn away upwards of 75 percent of qualified farmer applicants.
NSAC opposes the use of CHIMPS to cut funding for conservation programs that provide such essential benefits to farmers. In both the FY 2019 appropriations bill and upcoming farm bill, we will urge Congress to support CSP, EQIP, and other conservation programs that do so much for our farmers and natural resources. To learn more about NSAC’s conservation efforts in the upcoming farm bill, including marker bills we are supporting like the SOIL Stewardship Act, Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act, and American Prairies Conservation Act, click here.
Day to day, farmers have to adapt to and attempt to mitigate countless unpredictable variables on their operations (e.g., pests, extreme weather, rising input costs, and fluctuating market prices). Diversification and implementing conservation practices are two key ways that farmers can manage risk. However, oftentimes farmers’ conservation efforts can be hampered by another farm safety net tool – the federal crop insurance program.
Federal crop insurance is an important cornerstone of the farm safety net, but it currently excludes many types of farms and farmers, discourages sustainable practices, and encourages farm consolidation that further depopulates our rural communities. It also costs the public more than it should, yet does not provide much-needed transparency for evaluations and assessments of program performance. For family farmers to successfully weather the inherent challenges of a life in agriculture, they need a federal crop insurance program that is more efficient, effective, and responsive to the growing diversity of the industry.
Speaking with their representatives about reforming and modernizing the federal crop insurance program was top of mind for farmers Tianna Kennedy (Star Route Farm, NY) and Cliff Merriman (4M Farms, MT) during their fly-in. Both Kennedy’s Star Route Farm and Merriman’s 4M Farms are organic operations that utilize a wide variety of conservation practices. Historically, the crop insurance program has lagged behind in serving organic producers and in adequately rewarding farmers’ conservation efforts.
“With crop insurance, they don’t consider cover crops a ‘good farming practice’,” said Merriman, “so if you inter-seed or use a cover crop, they can actually deny you coverage or reduce your coverage by saying that you’re continuously cropping. Even though you’re not removing nutrients from the soil by continuously cropping – you’re actually building the nutrients and potentially boosting your future yields – they can still penalize you.”
Kennedy, Merriman, and NSAC are asking Congress to modernize the federal crop insurance program in the upcoming farm bill by expanding access to the program, actively promoting conservation activities, increasing equity and efficiency, and making the program more transparent. For more information on NSAC’s work on crop insurance in the upcoming farm bill, including marker bills that we are supporting, click here.
Still Work Left Ahead
With Congress actively working on both FY 2019 appropriations and the next farm bill, there’s a lot to do on Capitol Hill – and for farmers and ag-vocates across the country. NSAC will continue to work with our Members and our champions in Congress to put forward thoughtful appropriations and farm bill proposals, and will be hosting another farmer fly-in this June.
We want to thank all of the wonderful farmers and farm advocates who came to Washington, and everyone who donated funds, time, and effort to making this fly-in a success. We couldn’t do it without all of you!
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