The Farm Bill and the U.S. Territories: Challenges and Opportunities

Taro plantation in Guam, part of the U.S. Territories. Photo credit: USDA.

Taro plantation in Guam, part of the U.S. Territories. Photo credit: USDA.

Editor’s Note: This is the final post in a three-part blog series on how the Farm Bill impacts farmers and rural communities in the U.S. Territories, written and researched by NSAC policy intern Dariana Mattei-Ramos. Dariana is a native of Puerto Rico and is an advocate for food and agriculture justice. She holds a master’s degree in Food and Agriculture Law and Policy from Vermont Law School. The first post set the stage for the historical relations between U.S. Territories and the U.S. and their current agricultural systems. The second post analyzed sustainable agriculture programs in action in the Territories. This final post will address some of the key challenges and opportunities for the Territories’ agricultural systems.

The previous posts of this series, through an analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program data, found that the U.S. Territories are not participating in or benefiting from federal food and farm programs to the same extent as their counterparts in the States. This deficit is due to a confluence of factors, which will be discussed in the first section of this post, chief among them is a lack of resources and inadequate outreach by USDA. Following a discussion of the barriers and obstacles to program participation, this post will explore policy opportunities that would help to level the playing field and enhance equity in federal farm and food programs for producers in the U.S. Territories. While many of these opportunities can be explored in the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill, other solutions can be done through administrative actions, while others will require more data before serious reforms can be undertaken.

BARRIERS AND CHALLENGES:

Capacity

Federal grant writing can be a complex and time-consuming activity. This is a challenge for many farmers and farmer-advocacy organizations across the nation, but can be particularly challenging for those in the Territories, where individuals with the capacity and expertise necessary to undertake the grant writing process are in short supply.

In Puerto Rico, farmers or local organizations can receive grant application training from the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez Campus (the only land-grant institution in Puerto Rico), but the burden of actually completing and sending in the application still rests on the individual farmer or nonprofit organization. To attend the trainings and/or to complete an actual application for a USDA program, Puerto Rico’s farmers must leave their fieldwork and drive usually more than an hour to reach the University and/or appropriate federal office. When producers are ready to begin a grant, loan, or other program application, they must often spend the whole day at the USDA field office that is responsible for administering the program. There, they must navigate through an extensive bureaucratic process (similar to farmers in the rest of the U.S.), obtain and understand the specific program requirements, and then complete the application forms with the necessary documentation – time that could otherwise be spent earning income on their operations.

As shown in the chart below, each of the U.S. Territories currently strugglers with higher poverty rates than Mississippi (the poorest of the 50 states). This lack of financial resources is both a contributing factor to the Territories inability to participate fully in USDA grant programs, and a stark reminder of why increasing their participation is so critical.

Federal poverty level in U.S. Territories. Graph.

Additionally, the generally small-scale farm and food organizations throughout the Territories are often at a disadvantage in the grant application process because they must compete with larger entities (e.g., local departments of agriculture and land grant institutions) that have more capacity and resources to apply. Size and scale are some of the biggest challenges U.S. Territories face, both in terms of capacity to apply for grant programs and due to program eligibility requirements. Small-scale family farms are the predominant farm type in the Territories, and oftentimes they are too small to qualify for federal program assistance.

Literacy and Language Skills

The federal grant application process requires a level of English reading and writing proficiency that is often difficult to find in the Territories given the average age and literacy levels of the islands’ farmers. For Territories that have official languages other than English (e.g., Samoan or Spanish), this creates an unfair disadvantage because USDA only provides program applications in English, all proposals must be written in English, and USDA offers limited technical assistance for speakers of other languages.

Limited Governmental Outreach

Lack of outreach from federal and local governments is another major challenge for the Territories. Without targeted outreach from agency officials, local nonprofit organizations and farmers in the Territories remain largely unaware of opportunities to start or advance their operations through grant assistance, loan or cost-share programs.

Each of the grantees interviewed for this blog noted that they had proactively searched USDA websites for grant opportunities and eligibility requirements, but still struggled to find the opportunities that were right for them within the required application periods. Increased outreach is needed throughout the Territories, and within the Territories, each has specific community needs that USDA should take into account in order to effectively reach farming communities in those regions.

In Puerto Rico, for example, the farmer population is older on average and located in remote areas. In the Northern Mariana Islands, those interviewed for this blog reported a lack of interest from the federal government in collecting data on the Pacific Islands, which makes it difficult to assess outreach needs. An interviewee representing American Samoa reported that most agriculture in American Samoa is noncommercial, and therefore producers there would be most interested in opportunities that are targeted to their production systems.

Lack of Representation

Though the U.S. Territories have representation in Congress (as discussed in our first post), they have no collective voting power. Given their lack of political capital, there has historically been a lack of interest from advocacy groups within the States to engage in meaningful work with the Territories and its non-voting Congressional delegates. One advocate interviewed for this series noted the stark difference between her advocacy experience in Pennsylvania (where she spent 10 years advocating on sustainability issues) versus her experience when she moved back home to Puerto Rico. She reported struggling to ensure that her community’s voices and needs were heard on Capitol Hill, and feeling like there was no real interest in partnership from those in the federal policy space.

Federal and Local Coordination

One significant challenge raised by farmer interviewees was the lack of coordination between local and federal agencies. Because federal and local agencies often work independently, there can often be overlapping regulations and requirements that do not align with each other. With farmers in the Territories already receiving limited support in navigating programs and grant applications, this can sometimes be an insurmountable hurdle. In Puerto Rico, for example, many of their records are not yet digitized, which further complicates and strangles the communication between agencies’ regional and central offices.

Lack of Trust and Understanding

All of the aforementioned barriers and challenges culminate together to form a general feeling of mistrust among farmers in the Territories towards both local and federal government agencies. Famers from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico who were interviewed for this blog noted that many farmers they know do not feel that the federal agencies or their staff understand or are interested in meeting their needs.

Without trust, even the best-intentioned policy and program changes in the Territories are destined to fail. Building relationships with the islands’ farmers and non-profit organizations and willingness to listen to the needs of the community should therefore be a key part of any outreach or assistance strategy.

OPPORTUNITIES:

These are general opportunities that should be discussed as part of the ongoing 2018 Farm Bill debate. It is important to note that these recommendations are not one size fits all, however. Each of the U.S. Territories are different and have unique needs, therefore outreach and implementation strategies will need to be customized to meet the needs of individual communities.

Strengthen Outreach and Alliances

One way to level the playing field for farmers and farm/food organizations in the Territories is for USDA to work on proactive outreach efforts that are targeted to meet the unique needs of the islands. Dedicated funding for program work and grant projects in the Territories, increased promotion of federal program opportunities, and increased access to program opportunities (which includes making applications, resources, and staff available in the locations and languages where farmers live and work) would all make an impactful difference for residents of the islands. The 2501 program, for example, is one program that should be better leveraged to provide much needed outreach and technical assistance to farmers throughout the territories.

Regarding the availability of resources in native languages, it is important to point out that to be the most useful for applicants, resources must be culturally appropriate and designed specifically for understanding in a farmer’s or community’s native language – direct translations often fail to effectively communicate with non-English speakers.

Additionally, any efforts to increase and improve program promotion should also include the development of partnership with local leaders. Local organizations, like the Boricuá Organization in Puerto Rico and the Farm to Table Guam Corporation in Guam, have experience working with local community members and would be invaluable resources for developing outreach strategies and building community trust.

Focus on Small, Diversified Farms

A cultural shift is also needed to better support the needs of smaller and diversified farms across the Territories. Though farms in the Territories are mostly small-scale, many local governments focus on the promotion of large agribusinesses that produce single crops at an incredible volume. Given this predilection by local agencies, Congress should consider whether program set-asides or other targeting methods might help to ensure that producers of all sizes and types have opportunities to participate in USDA programs.

Another policy opportunity is to ensure that all USDA programs are available in the Territories, such as Whole Farms Revenue Protection (WFRP). As discussed in a previous post, WFRP is tailored to meet the needs of small and diversified farms by offering crop-neutral (i.e. “whole-farm”) revenue insurance coverage. Farm safety net programs are an essential tool that farmers rely on to successfully start and maintain their businesses. Because operations in the Territories are largely smaller in scale and diversified in nature, many of the currently available risk management programs are not a good fit. Though WFRP has only been available for a few years, it is already enjoying widespread success and popularity in the States, but remains inaccessible to farmers in the Territories. USDA should evaluate the feasibility of expanding this unique program to farmers in the Territories and Congress should seek to strengthen this program in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Invest in Local Food Economies

The scale and type of agriculture predominant throughout the Territories makes these communities well suited to develop thriving local/regional food systems. In assessing potential future outreach to the Territories, USDA should focus on opportunities to make direct market connections that could facilitate the growth of new food economies in these regions. Existing programs that would be beneficial in this effort include: the Farm To School Grant program, Value-added Producer Grants Program (VAPG), Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), and the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program.

Many farm bill programs that support local and regional food systems are currently under attack in the 2018 Farm Bill – in the failed House draft of the bill, for example, programs like VAPG and FMLFPP would receive no funding whatsoever and would all but cease to exist. Without robust funding in the 2018 Farm Bill these and other “tiny but mighty” programs (aka those without baseline funding) could either be severely limited or eliminated altogether. Farmers with smaller-scale and/or diversified operations in both the Territories and the States rely on these types of programs to grow their businesses and reduce risk by developing diverse revenue streams. Local/regional food system programs are economic drivers and should be strengthened in the 2018 Farm Bill to serve more communities (including those in the Territories), not diminished.

Given the popularity of the tourism industry in the Territories, local/regional food marketplace development could be elevated by connecting it with existing industries, like agritourism. Visit Rico in Puerto Rico is a good example of an organization in the Territories that has been actively promoting local food culture, and American Samoa also recently held an Agritourism Forum focused on creating these kinds of synergies.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

It is clear that equitable access to federal programs and opportunities is a problem for farmers and ranchers throughout the U.S. – including those in the U.S. Territories. This series has endeavored to unpack just a few of the specific trends, challenges, and opportunities found in the five territories of the U.S. in order to shine a light on the unique experiences and needs of those peoples and farming communities.

A major barrier to this work remains a lack of available data on the Territories’ participation and experience with USDA programs. Without more and more in-depth data from the Territories, it will be difficult if not impossible to fully understand the needs of farmers and food/farm organizations on the islands – let alone to address those needs. Additional data collection and analysis is needed on each individual U.S. Territory before real work can begin on reforming program structure and outreach.

It is our hope that this series played some part in amplifying the challenges and opportunities that exist within the agriculture sector of each of the U.S. Territories. Although the analysis in these blogs is certainly not exhaustive, we believe that any amount of amplification we can give to the voices of farmers who are historically under-represented and underserved is important. Our goal in this series has been to lift up and to make visible what has often been overlooked by the sustainable agriculture community and policymakers in the States. We look forward to continuing to follow these issues in the Territories and will provide updates if and when additional information becomes available.

The post The Farm Bill and the U.S. Territories: Challenges and Opportunities appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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