Advocates for issues like more sustainable food systems, better policies against systemic racism and climate-smart practices in agriculture have an opportunity to be heard as legislators begin work on the 2023 farm bill, said speakers at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association’s virtual conference Feb. 12.
Scott Marlow, deputy administrator for farm programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, said for a long time, these advocates have been trying to get a seat at the table.
But now, even the secretary of agriculture is directly talking about topics including climate-smart agriculture, systemic racism and building back food systems in a more sustainable way, including on the local and regional levels.
“This is a critical moment,” Marlow said. “You have a seat at the table.”
That makes this next farm bill an important time for these farmers to get involved with policy and advocating for these issues.
That means focusing on systems, when it comes to problem solving, and not just symptoms, Marlow said. The pandemic revealed a lot of issues with the current food system. But because that system is based on policies and decisions that have been made, it is possible to change it.
“The food system is not broken,” he said. “The food system is doing exactly what it was designed to do.”
For example, it was designed to be highly efficient, and it is. There aren’t a lot of redundancies in some parts of the food system. But that comes at a cost. When something like a pandemic hits, there can be major disruptions. That’s why it’s important to address the systems and situations that are creating problems, and not just the problems themselves.
That doesn’t necessarily mean this farm bill will be the start of a huge change. Many people involved in policy have been spending a lot of time and energy on pandemic-related challenges over the last two years, and some are getting worn out, said Eric Deeble, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
And unfortunately, just because a problem is visible doesn’t mean people will manage to fix it.
“Time is short, and ambitions seem pretty modest at this point,” Deeble said.
Jonathan McCracken, the recently-appointed rural development state director in Ohio for the USDA, formerly the senior policy adviser for Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, said the farm bill isn’t likely to grow much this time around. But there are also things happening outside of the farm bill that could take some pressure off.
For example, nutrition benefits, like SNAP, are a big part of the farm bill. Those benefits recently increased for the first time in decades, which means organizers aren’t just depending on the farm bill to deliver that, McCracken said.
Deeble added there hasn’t been new money in the farm bill since 2002. But farm bills since then have still made policy updates and changes, so bills don’t necessarily need to add funding to be successful.
There are several things sustainable agriculture and organic farming organizations are hoping to see in the next farm bill. Making sure crop insurance and conservation programs are working for organic farmers is one, said Abby Youngblood, executive director for the National Organic Coalition.
For example, Deeble said, NSAC is an advocate of whole farm revenue protection as an insurance program for farmers. Focusing on that as a main program, and less on single crop policies, could help organic farmers.
Youngblood also identified increased reimbursements for the certification costshare program, and more work on issues like land access and access to other resources for farmers.
McCracken added much will depend on who the chairs of the House and Senate agriculture committees are after the 2022 elections. In addition to party differences, there are geographic differences.
A Midwestern senator or representative is more likely to be in tune with what Midwestern farmers need, while a Southern legislator will be more aware of what Southern farmers are concerned about.
“You can get wins in a farm bill,” McCracken said. “Do the farm bills ever go as far as any of us what? … No, but that said, there’s still a lot we can do here.”
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