Catching up on the Farm Bill in Gordon’s Policy Corner

As you might have noticed, this Congress has already made some history, taking 15 ballots to elect Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House.  As that dust settles, the rules of the House have been agreed upon, and committee membership gets finalized, we at OFRF and our partners are getting a clearer picture of the Farm Bill landscape.  One thing remains abundantly clear, that agricultural research continues to be a bright spot for bipartisan legislation, and we are excited to leverage that fact this Farm Bill cycle.

If you missed it, we published a piece in the Organic Farmer Association’s Organic Voice, “Stepping Up To The Organic Research Challenge: The 2023 Farm Bill Must Grow Investments to Meet Growing Demand.”  In it, we lay out our three priorities for organic research for the 2023 Farm Bill. First, increase the organic research funding at the Agricultural Research Service to represent its market share, producing environmentally and economically sound management systems for all producers. Second, continue to support and develop the investments the National Institute for Food and Agriculture has been making in organic agriculture research. Lastly, fully fund and expand the Organic Market and Data Initiative.

By |2023-01-15T15:47:07+00:00January 13th, 2023|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

Farmers on the Frontlines: Climate Change and the Farm Bill

2023 Farm Bill Presents Opportunities for Farmers and Ranchers on the Frontlines of Climate Change

Farmers and ranchers, the people who produce our food, are often on the frontlines of challenges facing our society. Among the most pressing of those issues is the changing climate and an industrial food system that prioritizes profits over the health and wellbeing of people and the planet. Combined with the unprecedented loss of biodiversity, these three issues have even been called a triple threat to humanity.

Image from Frontiers article “Narrow and Brittle or Broad and Nimble? Comparing Adaptive Capacity in Simplifying and Diversifying Farming Systems”

These challenges are interrelated. The current standard methods of conventional food production are an outgrowth of the technological and chemical advancements of the mid 20th century, which resulted in a rapid increase in the ability to export calories in the form of commodity crops, such as corn and soy. This production depends on the ubiquitous use of cheap agri-chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and continued expansion of farmer-debt (as discussed in this article and this article) to increase scale and maintain technological relevancy. This ‘get big or get out’, petroleum-dependent production system decreases biodiversity and weakens the landscape’s capacity to be resilient and adapt to our changing climate. It also makes our food system vulnerable to even slight shifts in things like crop production or labor availability. 

Farmers often keenly feel the challenges presented by warmer temperatures, increased flooding, and other extreme weather events. Caroline Baptist is the owner of the River Valley Country Club, a small farm in Washington state. “Farming on a floodplain and a floodway can be a challenge, and changes in climate over the years have only exacerbated this issue,” Baptist says. “The property owner from whom I lease land remembers experiencing 1-2 major floods a year when he first began farming in the area in 1993. More recently, we’ve seen these numbers double and triple.” Describing a recent flooding event Baptist says, “Some areas of the farm were under water by 15 feet and accessible only by canoe. This flood and every flood since is a sobering experience, illustrating clearly that the climate crisis is real, and it affects farmers firsthand.”

Past farm policies that favored the ‘get big or get out’ model led to increases in monocultures. The resulting abundance of commodity crops in the food system correlates with increases in processed foods, and associated adverse health effects in low-income and systemically underserved communities (more on that here).  

SCF Organics brings fresh produce to people experiencing food deserts.

Shaheed Harris is the farm manager at Sumpter Cooperative Farms (SCF) in South Carolina. Among many other endeavors, SCF runs the Midlands Organic Mobile Markets, which are a suite of vans that directly distribute locally grown organic foods to the food deserts in the Midlands region of South Carolina. This project aims to address the need for equitable food access in communities in nearby metro areas with limited access to healthy foods. “Those places are areas … where they don’t have a grocery store,” Harris explains. “A lot of people don’t have vehicles to drive and they’re basically living on the nearest equivalent of a gas station. So they’re eating out of a gas station and getting chips and all types of processed foods that don’t really have a lot of nutrition.” Through the Midlands program, Harris says SCF aims to serve the people in these areas who would not otherwise have access to fresh healthy foods.

The farm bill is a package of legislation, updated once every five years, that sets the stage for our food and farming systems. The current farm bill expires in October of 2023, and a new suite of legislation will be developed and put into action. This farm bill cycle is a ripe opportunity to make solid advances towards a just transition to a new type of production that both mitigates and adapts to our changing climate, supports the health of the land and the people producing our food, and can help prevent food insecurity by increasing the amount of organic, nutritious food on American’s dinner plates.

Because of their place on the front lines of these challenges, farmers and ranchers represent a vibrant space of innovation and creativity to meet them. Our farmers and ranchers answering these challenges should be sources of inspiration on policy tools and instruments for the 2023 farm bill. 

Clover cover crop, to be tilled back into the soil.

Jesse Buie is the president of Ole Brook Organics in Mississippi. One of the main environmental factors that Buie deals with is a lot of rain which can cause leaching of nutrients from the soil. To combat this he focuses on building healthy soil by making sure that he is constantly adding organic matter. At Ole Brook Organics they do this primarily by incorporating all the plant matter back into the soil. Any grasses or crop residue left after a crop is harvested are chopped up and tilled back into the fields, forming a closed-loop of nutrient cycling.

At SCF Harris is dealing with the opposite environmental concern: too little water. They have addressed this challenge by implementing Dry Farming practices that he learned from his family’s farming heritage. This style of farming, which combines unirrigated crop production with shallow cultivation offers a promising alternative in times of uncertain water resources. 

Building resilience to economic disruptions has led some farmers to increase their use of local inputs, processors, and distributors, avoiding or lessening the impacts of supply chain disruptions in global markets. And as an added benefit this localization increases the access to nutritious, culturally appropriate, and tasty food that can connect communities. 

Rotational grazing can be a tool for healthy pasture management.

Dayna Burtness is a farmer at Nettle Valley Farm in Spring Grove, Minnesota, raising pastured pigs. “We’ve been able to build community while building land resiliency,” she explains. “We’re able to work with nearby farmers and fruit growers to take non-marketable produce and turn it into delicious pork, which is benefiting everyone! It reduces the amount of food waste and helps other farmers put what they grow to good use. We are working hard to help create a different type of food system, we just wish there was more public support to really kick this change into overdrive.”

Federal research, conservation, and market development programs created and funded in the Farm Bill make all of these things possible, but expanded support is necessary to continue to support farmers and create a healthier future for people and the planet. If you want to get involved in advocating for a better food system, Ariana Taylor-Stanley (ariana@sustainableagriculture.net) at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition or Gordon Merrick (gordon@ofrf.org) at the Organic Farming Research Foundation!

. . . 

Links for further reading:

Narrow and Brittle or Broad and Nimble? Comparing Adaptive Capacity in Simplifying and Diversifying Farming Systems, Frontiers

Green Revolution: History, Impact and Future, by H.K. Jain, available through most book suppliers

Chicken farmers say processors treat them like servants, AP News 

Farmers and animal rights activists are coming together to fight big factory farms, Vox 

2021 Tied for 6th Warmest Year in Continued Trend, NASA Analysis Shows, NASA 

The 2010s Were the Hottest Decade on Record. What Happens Next?, Smithsonian Magazine 

Americans are eating more ultra-processed foods, Science Daily

Ultra-processed foods and adverse health outcomes, The BMJ

Examining the Impact of Structural Racism on Food Insecurity: Implications for Addressing Racial/Ethnic Disparities, National Library of Medicine

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Community at Disproportionate Risk from Pesticides, Study Finds, Beyond Pesticides

Equitable Access to Organic Foods: Why it matters, Bread for the World

What is the Farm Bill, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Hunger and Food Insecurity, Feeding America

By |2023-01-15T15:48:48+00:00January 9th, 2023|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

Senate Farm Bill Hearing on Ag Research Programs Features Former OFRF Board President Steve Ela

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry held a hearing on the “Farm Bill 2023: Research Programs” on December 6th. The only farmer testifying was Steve Ela, a fourth-generation farmer who has been farming organically for nearly thirty years at Ela Family Farms, his family’s farm in Hotchkiss, Colorado. As well as his farming experience, Ela also served on the National Organic Standards Board as Board Chair, as well as the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) Board as Board President. As one of five panelists invited to share their expertise, Ela spoke to the importance of organic systems research and extension programs to all farmers.

“It is significant that an organic producer was invited to testify and share their experiences with research and extension programs before the Senate Committee that writes the Farm Bill.  Steve made a compelling case for the need for more public investment in organic agricultural research,” said Brise Tencer, Executive Director of OFRF. She continued, “Steve has had the experience of both a participant and a consumer of organic research, and it is crucial that we hear more from farmers like him that depend on these research programs.”

To begin the hearing, Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Undersecretary for the USDA Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young provided a general overview of REE programs and stressed the importance of meaningful investment into these programs.  Dr. Jacobs-Young provided three main calls to action for the Committee: 1) increase investment into public research programs; 2) invest in the revitalization of our nation’s agriculture research infrastructure; and 3) expand the tracks of research available to young and beginning researchers from diverse backgrounds.

Former OFRF Board President, Steve Ela of Ela Family Farms in the apple orchard

In his testimony, Ela highlighted how USDA funded organic research programs help all farmers, not just those certified organic, giving examples such as codling moth management through pheromone disruption, or the use of cover crops for pest and weed control. Ela also discussed how complex organic agricultural management can be, and why that’s so important to both its resilience and the importance of organic research: “The longer I farm, the more I realize how complex the ecosystem is that I am working with. It is imperative that rather than heavily investing into basic, single issue agricultural research, like specific chemicals or gene transfers, we embrace systems management and action-oriented research that not only enhances our understanding of complex ecosystems but helps farmers work with rather than against natural systems.”

To make sure that this type of research is continued to be supported, and expanded, at the USDA, Ela’s testimony called on Congress to:

  • Increase funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) to $100 million by end of the 2023 Farm Bill;
  • Formally authorize the existing NIFA Organic Transition Program at $20 million by the end of the 2023 Farm Bill, with a name change and program mission updates to avoid confusion and improve program operation;
  • Continue to support the work of other NIFA programs that should expand their organic portfolio, like SARE, SCRI, and AFRI-SAS;
  • Require USDA to direct ARS to increase investments into organic agriculture research, both through coordinating the ongoing and planned research while also increasing the amount of organically certified acreage ARS is operating;
  • Reauthorize the Organic Data Initiative (ODI) to expand segregated organic data collection and analysis by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Agricultural Marketing Service, and the Economic Research Service and require an economic impact analysis of the organic agriculture market on rural communities;
  • Require USDA to dedicate funds annually to fund the development of cultivars and animal breeds that are regionally adapted using conventional breeding methods to address farmers’ unique soils, farming systems, market needs, and changing climates; and
  • Require USDA to appoint a Public Cultivar and Breed Research Coordinator reporting to the Under Secretary of Research, Education, and Economics to oversee collaboration between existing USDA competitive grant research programs regarding regionally adapted cultivar and breed development activities.

This list of policies align with OFRF’s priorities this 2023 Farm Bill season, and we believe represent an increasingly-rare opportunity for bipartisan legislation. Investing in public agricultural research has historically enjoyed broad support in the Farm Bill. Not only does this research answer the questions farmers need answers to, but it also has a significant economic payoff of $20 for every dollar spent.

“We at OFRF are looking forward to working with a diverse, bipartisan group of legislators this Farm Bill cycle to make sure farmers like Steve have access to the research and technical expertise necessary to be a successful agricultural business managing their land organically,” said Gordon Merrick, Policy & Programs Manager at OFRF.

OFRF supports actionable research that focuses on the wide adoption of organic systems of production and the climate resiliency services it offers. OFRF has led organic farming and research initiatives since its inception in 1993 and has advocated for federal policy supporting integrated research, education, and outreach to farmers who build healthy resilient farming systems that withstand climate change and steward the land for future generations.

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About Organic Farming Research Foundation

Organic Farming Research Foundation works to foster the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming systems. OFRF cultivates organic research, education, and federal policies that bring more farmers and acreage into organic production. http://www.ofrf.org/

Policy Contact

Gordon N. Merrick, Policy & Programs Manager, gordon@ofrf.org

By |2022-12-13T18:19:37+00:00December 13th, 2022|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|

Gordon’s Policy Corner – October

As one would expect, the fall season has certainly brought a sense of urgency to Washington! But, like a lot of things in the policy world, initial deadlines are simply goals. We have seen a variety of extensions, delays, and even a continuing resolution this season and wanted to be sure you know of these continuing opportunities to engage in the policy process!

  • Congress has not met their deadline of passing a full budget, but have extended last year’s budget through what is an increasingly common tool known as the Continuing Resolution. Even though this is a frustrating development, it is also an opportunity to continue to voice the importance of organic research with appropriator offices! If you’re interested in doing so, reach out to me, Gordon, at gordon@ofrf.org.
  • USDA has also announced that they have extended the window to offer written comments on the new Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards rule. Consider the National Organic Coalition Template, or the Organic Farmer’s Association or Organic Trade Association’s individual comment tool. We need to be clear that the USDA must implement this rule quickly!
  • We are looking forward to hearing more details on the USDA’s Organic Transition Initiative, a potentially transformative investment into transitioning acreage into organic production. OFRF will keep you up to date on any developments regarding these investments and look forward to working with USDA and our partners to make this as impactful as it can be.
  • Last, but certainly not least, the Farm Bill season is fully upon us! The House Committee is looking for you to provide feedback on what programs are important to you, such as OREI or increasing transitional assistance. The Senate Committee will be continuing to develop their hearing schedule and we will be sure to keep you in the know of any opportunities to voice your opinion!
By |2022-10-27T20:29:09+00:00October 27th, 2022|Gordon's Policy Corner, News|
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