Supporting Family Farms and Ranches and Vibrant Rural Communities
The farm bill is a package of federal legislation enacted every five to seven years to set the general direction for America’s farm and food policy. Congress enacted the first farm bill in the wake of the Great Depression. The farm bill is much more than an agricultural aid package – in fact, it influences you everyday. From the cost and availability of your food, to the tools available to your community to protect farm and ranch land, promote on farm renewable and energy efficiency and much more.
The farm bill expires in 2018 and the process to decide what ultimately ends up in the next farm bill is underway, if unclear, given the political climate and calls from the administration for sweeping budget cuts. In many ways this year’s fight is shaping up to be about protecting funding for programs that are most vital to our members and our rural communities. For the next several months, Congress will be in listening mode, so it is timely to share your concerns with your delegation.
Here are the programs and priorities we are supporting:
- Access to fair and open markets that benefit farmers, workers, consumers and the marketplace. Crop and livestock producers need a much more competitive and open marketplace so they are not forced to be virtual or actual serfs of big food manufacturers, dairy processors, meatpackers and processors, and retailers. There needs to be enough buyers of the fruits of farms and sellers of agricultural inputs that the competitive benefits of markets can work for farmers. A more vibrant marketplace should cover the cost of production, including fair pay for workers, plus reasonable profits and provide a measure of economic stability too often absent in the current marketplace. A more vibrant marketplace, with more choices for farmers and consumers, is essential. It cannot happen without breaking up the agribusiness cartels who control seed, chemical, meatpacking, poultry and grocery chain markets and vigorous enforcement of existing anti-trust laws. Congress should amend the Packers and Stockyards Act to prohibit the use of certain anti-competitive forward contracts as proposed in the Captive Supply Reform Act.
- Develop supply management policies, tools and approaches to mitigate the volatility of the weather and economy. Basic supply management tools like agricultural reserves that can reduce wild farmgate price volatility, boost persistently stagnant low prices, and reduce long-term high prices would benefit farmers and consumers. America used to have a commodity reserve for grains – like the strategic petroleum reserve – that could have helped ease the price hikes during 2008 while still providing farmers with a needed safety net. Other tools such as supported and coordinated conservation programs for working lands and the use of rotational production methods can provide market and environmental benefits. Fairer prices for U.S. farmers and a more stable supply of U.S. farm products would effectively prevent excess, low-priced export commodities from being dumped abroad, undercutting markets and prices in the developing world.
- Recognize that healthy families need economic equity. The real earnings of working families in America have been stagnant – or declining – for the past three decades, which has made it harder to put healthy food on the table. In the short term, nutrition safety nets need to be protected so low-income families can afford healthy, nutritious foods, not just the cheapest option. For both farmers and consumers at all income levels to thrive over the long term, families need the opportunity to earn a decent living so that they can afford their own healthy foods. Congress should preserve full funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in the farm bill
- Invest in food system infrastructure. The consolidation in the food system has nearly eliminated the local butchers, independent dairies, produce wholesale marketplaces and regional grain milling operations that used to be everywhere. To create local-oriented food delivery systems, revitalize communities and create jobs, independent markets and distribution chains need to be strengthened and rebuilt. This requires scale appropriate regulation for small and mid-sized producers, aggregators and processors. Funding for government grant, loan and credit programs should be preserved and targeted to support the rebuilding of local and regional food production infrastructure and distribution chains. Funding for the Value Added Producers Grant, Rural Business Development Grant and Farmers’ Market and Local Food Promotion Program, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) should be expanded. EQIP is particularly important to support on farm irrigation infrastructure improvements.
- Utilize the full purchasing power of government to drive demand for regional food systems. The public sector is a considerable purchaser of food – for schools, universities, hospitals, government building cafeterias, or prisons. Governments at all levels should use that purchasing power to leverage positive demand for change and lead the way in re-creating regional food systems.
- Develop financial infrastructure to provide a safety net for family farmers and develop sustainable farm systems. Farm lending, crop insurance and disaster programs are critical to the survival of family farms. However many of these programs are designed to benefit the largest corporate commodity growers. Federal crop insurance programs should impose limits on insurance subsidies to farmers, require conservation compliance, and better target affordable policies to the farmers who need them. Farm lending, crop insurance and disaster programs need to reflect the full diversity of farmers – beginning and disadvantaged farmers, small and mid-sized farmers, and farmers transitioning to organic or more sustainable production. Farmers need access to credit, both through traditional banks and through public loan programs at USDA. Farm families also deserve the same access to loan restructuring that distressed homeowners received during the recent credit crisis.
- Target conservation funding to encourage biodiversity and long-term, low-cost management strategies that minimize the environmental impacts of food production. Conservation funds should be preserved and should subsidize the transition to and maintenance of farm management strategies that improve biodiversity, minimize air and water pollution, and conserve soil, water, and other essential resources. Conservation programs should help farmers identify crops and techniques appropriate to their region’s water resources and climate.
- Reinvest in public research for the public good. The national network of land-grant universities and extension services has the potential to be mobilized in support of a fairer and more diversified food system, but not without significant reinvestment in their work. Funding for research to improve productivity and environmental stewardship on small and midsized farms, facilitate value-added processing and the construction of regional distribution networks, and explore other regional market-building opportunities is a public good. This research funding should be continued through public sources and the knowledge that results from it being publicly controlled.
- Invest in truly sustainable energy solutions. To meet our climate and energy goals, farmers and rural communities will need to be a big part of the solution. But instead of blanket support for bioenergy and continued unqualified support for biofuels, regardless of their energy contributions or greenhouse gas and environmental impacts, rural energy programs should focus on real rural energy solutions that also contribute to other environmental and community goals. The emphasis must be on more robust rural energy conservation efforts that can help farmers, ranchers and rural residents reduce their energy use and their monthly energy costs. Support for renewable energy production should be focused on locally-owned, scaled and beneficial projects that are based upon sustainable resource planning and use, and enhance, rather than diminish our natural resources and economies.