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NSAC Focuses on Upcoming Priorities

Posted: May 8, 2017

Editor’s Note: As a lead up to the 2018 Farm Bill, around which discussions and debate in Congress have already begun, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is previewing some of the major programs and policies that advocates need to know in order to effectively engage. The final post in our series, “Path to the 2018 Farm Bill,” focuses on key legislative and grassroots campaigns that NSAC will be championing over the coming year. These priorities include programs and policies that support the next generation of American farmers and ranchers, local and regional food systems, on-farm conservation programs, a more accountable farm safety net, and more diversity in our public seed supply.

As we continue the march toward the 2018 Farm Bill, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has used our “Path to the 2018 Farm Bill” blog series to unpack the complex food and farm policy issues that will likely be at the center of the upcoming debates. Over the course of our series, we covered agricultural conservation programs, our food safety net (i.e., the programs of the Nutrition Title), our farm safety net(commodity and crop insurance programs), and the innovative programs in the farm bill that support sustainable food and farming systems.

Although we won’t be launching our official Farm Bill Platform until later this fall, we are closing our “Path to the 2018 Farm Bill” series with a sneak peek at the top legislative and grassroots campaigns that we will be championing in the next farm bill. NSAC’s Farm Bill Platform will cover the broad array of food and farm issues that impact farmers and those working for a sustainable food system, focusing on five major policy campaigns:

§ Comprehensive conservation reform

§ Beginning farmers and ranchers

§ Local and regional food systems

§ Seeds and breeds research

§ Crop insurance reform

Below, we offer a preview of the work that our 118-member coalition will be doing over the coming 18 months. Additional details on each of these campaigns will be forthcoming, as specific policy proposals are developed.

Advancing Land Stewardship: Comprehensive Conservation Title Reform

Privately-owned crop, pasture, and rangeland account for nearly half of land in the U.S. Given the enormity of agriculture’s footprint – combined with the fact that these “working lands” intersect with shared natural resources like rivers and lakes – it makes sense that farmers and ranchers would have a significant role to play in sustaining our nation’s natural resources. NSAC will seek to win support for programs that help farmers and ranchers implement and enhance conservation systems on their operations. We will also work to ensure that these programs are increasingly accessible, transparent, and outcomes-based. Our comprehensive conservation campaign will seek reforms to ensure that federal conservation programs and requirements:

§ Are flexible and accessible for small and mid-sized farms, as well as for organic, diversified, and rotational grazing operations.

§ Incentivize continual conservation improvements on land in agricultural production.

§ Protect the most marginal and environmentally sensitive acres through long-term contracts and easements.

§ Include evaluation tools to assess conservation outcomes.

§ Adequately protect against soil erosion and grassland loss.

NSAC will seek to: develop a clearer linkage between cost share payments through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and comprehensive conservation assistance through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP); ensure that any increases to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage cap are not offset with cuts to working lands conservation program funding; and protect and build upon the linkage between conservation and crop insurance that was reestablished in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Increasing Opportunity: Beginning Farmers and Ranchers

Over the last decade Americans have become increasingly interested in food – where it comes from, how it is produced, and by whom. The increased demand for regionally produced food and organic products, and the growing awareness of the need for more sustainable food systems has created significant opportunities for growth through value-added agriculture. Unfortunately, high barriers to entry, such as difficulty accessing affordable farmland, high upfront startup costs, and inadequate training and technical assistance, make it difficult for beginning farmers and ranchers to pursue careers in agriculture.

Young and beginning farmers entering agriculture today have different needs and face different challenges than those who started farming decades ago. These new farmers tend to operate smaller farms and have more diversified operations; and an increasing number of them come from non-farm backgrounds and therefore struggle to access to farmland, which has traditionally been passed down from generation to generation.

In order to ensure a successful American agricultural economy for years to come, NSAC will be launching a national campaign to advocate for a farm bill for the future. The key policy proposals of this campaign will:

§ Increase access to farmland by funding land-link, farm transition, and succession planning initiatives.

§ Empower new farmers by providing them with the skills to succeed, expanding support for beginning farmer training and technical assistance programs, and launching a national asset building and financial literacy initiative.

§ Increase conservation and loan support to ensure that beginning farmers have the resources they need to enhance their operations.

§ Improve risk management options for new farmers.

Congress has a unique opportunity in the 2018 Farm Bill to develop a national beginning farmer and rancher strategy that breaks down barriers to entry and ensures a future for American family farming and sustainable food production.

Investing in Regional Food Economies: New Markets and Rural Development

Farmers across the country are struggling to cope with rock-bottom commodity prices. In this time of economic uncertainty, producers are increasingly looking to diversify and grow their customer bases by tapping into local, regional, and organic markets. Just when farmers and communities need it most, however, the federal support that catalyzes job creation through local and regional food and farm economies is being threatened with rollbacks and crippling budget cuts.

Many of these programs run out of money at the end of the 2018 fiscal year. Others are being targeted through the budget process. This includes the Value Added Producer Grants Program (VAPG), Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP), and Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) among others.

NSAC and our allies across the country will be looking to strengthen these threatened programs and policies that improve farm viability and support local and regional food value chains. NSAC’s 2018 Farm Bill campaign on local and regional food systems will:

§ Promote infrastructure development that enables local and regional food systems to expand and diversify beyond direct marketing.

§ Reduce barriers to entry into local and regional food markets, especially for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

§ Build up opportunities to create and expand value-added agriculture enterprises.

§ Develop and advance local food and farm-based solutions and initiatives to address hunger and diet-related chronic diseases.

NSAC’s legislative campaign will champion reforms across multiple titles of the next farm bill, and seek to promote federal programs and policies that will strongly support the growing local and regional food sectors of the agriculture economy. The campaign’s goals include: improving existing federal farm bill programs, advancing new and innovative initiatives, and advocating for secure funding for programs that catalyze rural economic development and improve consumer access to local healthy food.

Specifically, NSAC will seek to: increase funding for FMLFPP, VAPG, and RMAP; facilitate broader and more efficient use of EBT (formerly known as “food stamps”) at direct market farming operations; create a new GAP and Group GAP Certification Cost-share Program; improve marketing and rural development program delivery and innovation through a new regional partnership initiative; and enhance technical assistance for small and very small meat processing plants.

Securing Seeds for the Future: Public Plant Breeding Research and Development

Everything in agriculture starts with seeds. Seeds are the building blocks of our food system, and farmers require seed stocks that are regionally adapted to meet their needs and farming conditions. Public access to seeds is critical to the future of agriculture, and to all farmers’ ability to successfully adapt to the challenges of a changing climate.

Over the past 20 years there has been a steady decline in our investment in our nation’s public sector breeding and research programs (housed primarily within the land grant university system and USDA research facilities). Because of this divestment, we have lost over a third of our country’s public plant breeding programs, leaving American farmers ill-prepared to meet market demands and adapt to increasingly extreme weather patterns. Without renewed funding for the development of publicly available plant varieties, our farmers will be at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world.

In the upcoming farm bill, NSAC will join with our allies and research partners to launch our first ever “Seeds and Breeds” legislative campaign. The primary goal of this campaign will be to reverse the downward trend of diminishing federal resources to support public breeding research and spur the development of locally adapted and publicly available varieties.

NSAC’s Seeds and Breeds legislative proposals will focus on key policy improvements, expanded funding streams, and new legislative proposals within the Research Title. Specifically we will be looking at policies that seek to increase support for conventional breeding research within USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and also within the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Our policy recommendations will: improve transparency and coordination of plant and animal breeding research; increase federal funding for conventional, field-based breeding research; and ensure publicly funded varieties remain accessible to all interested farmers and researchers.

Aligning Risk Management, Conservation and Family Farming: Crop Insurance Reform

Farming is an inherently risky business. The threat of extreme weather, pests, variable costs for inputs, and wild fluctuations in market prices for farm products make agriculture a volatile business environment and can cause farm income to vary significantly from year to year. A healthy farm and food system therefore depends heavily on public policies that help farmers manage risk effectively.

NSAC, like many others in the farm sector, believes that a robust crop insurance program backed by the federal government is an important component of an effective farm safety net. However, we also believe that the current policy encourages consolidation, artificially inflates farmland values, and is not viable for the full range and diversity of American agriculture including organic farms, highly diversified farms, farms serving local and regional food markets, and beginning farmers, among others.

The federal crop insurance program we have today creates holes in the farm safety net by discouraging farmers from improving their risk management through the use of proven conservation and diversification methods. The federal crop insurance program also saddles the American public with a large annual subsidy bill without offering real program accountability or transparency.

At a cost of over $8 billion a year, federal crop insurance is the costliest program outside of the nutrition title in the farm bill, giving it an outsized role in shaping the farm bill and agricultural economy. The crop insurance program is also unique in that, unlike all other federal entitlement programs, it requires no means testing or limitation on benefits. Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, it also provides the largest producers with a consistent, publicly funded source of revenue that allows them to bid up land prices. This inflates land prices beyond the reach of many beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, encouraging further consolidation in our food production system.

As we gear up for the 2018 Farm Bill, NSAC will be mobilizing our members and farmers across the country to demand improvements to the federal crop insurance program that will make it more effective, efficient, and transparent. Our campaign will focus on four key pillars reform that will:

§ Expand access to serve all types of farmers based on their risk management needs.

§ Actively promote conservation by eliminating barriers to sustainable farming practices and rewarding practices that protect our land, water and health.

§ Reform the structure of the crop insurance program so that it no longer provides unlimited subsidies that fuel farm consolidation or unduly influences farmers’ planting decisions.

§ Improve the delivery of the crop insurance program to make it more transparent and efficient.

Closing

We have a long road ahead of us, but important hearings, discussions, and debates around the 2018 Farm Bill are already taking place in earnest. Like farm bills of the past, we expect that the 2018 bill will include some compromising, but also some significant disagreements and struggles.

In this series, we have highlighted some of the key areas of the farm bill that will get attention over the next 18 months. We covered dynamics related to food assistance programs, whether and how to reform the commodity subsidy programs and federal crop insurance program, how to improve agricultural conservation programs, and whether or not the many farm bill programs that support beginning farmers, regional food systems, organic agriculture, and rural economic development will be left “stranded” and without renewed funding.

No matter when and how these debates take shape, NSAC will be there to help shape policies that support small and midsized farms, protect the environment, promote rural economic opportunities, and ensure access to healthy food for everyone. Stay tuned for more action and updates on the 2018 Farm Bill as the debates unfold and NSAC’s campaigns are developed.