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|

Latino Farmer Conference & New Spanish-language course

OFRF Attends Latino Farmer Conference and Announces Spanish-language Soil Health Course – Coming Summer 2023!

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnered to host the 8th annual Latino Farmer Conference on November 17th and 18th at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. This was a two day conference meant to bring together sustainable agriculture professionals for a special all Spanish-language event.

While at the conference, OFRF’s Deputy Director, Dominica Navarro, was able to witness first-hand the unique networking and learning opportunities presented for Latino farmers, as well as spread the word about a new Spanish-language Soil Health Course OFRF will be releasing in Summer 2023. 

The conference was a much needed opportunity for Latino farmers and other service providers to convene. “With such strong Latino/a/x representation in agriculture, this conference was a wonderful opportunity to meet other Latino/a’s doing similar work and with like values,” said Dominica. “As a Latina in agriculture myself, I would love to see more opportunities like this for historically underserved farmers everywhere.”  Topics covered at the conference included: sustainable farming practices, technical assistance, business management, health and wellness, land access and even included a session on how to transition to organic!  

OFRF Spanish-language Soil Health Course

In OFRF’s free online Spanish-language course, coming Summer 2023, we delve into the world of soil and explain how you can promote soil health as part of a healthy ecosystem for humans, plants and other organisms that live within the soil. We discuss the basics of soil health, practices like nutrient management, cover cropping, crop rotation, and also provide tools to help you decide which management practices are best for you and your farm. Our goal is to provide up-to-date science, as well as culturally relevant information for farmers from diverse backgrounds. This course is being developed with the help of partners at UC Davis’s Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (UC SAREP), the Agriculture and Land-based Training Association (ALBA), and the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). 

Are you a Spanish-speaking farmer in California? Would you like to help us review the course? If so, please contact Research & Education Director, Thelma Velez at thelma@ofrf.org

By |2022-12-13T18:54:08+00:00December 13th, 2022|News|

Plant Genetics: Plant Breeding and Variety Selection

Plant breeding and cultivar development conducted for and within the context of organic farming systems can lead to improved organic crop yields, and thereby facilitate adoption of organic practices that protect and build soil health.

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By |2020-01-08T18:14:55+00:00January 1st, 2017|Soil Health and Organic Farming Reports|

Water Management and Water Quality

Efficient utilization of irrigation water is essential for production, economic, and environmental reasons, especially in regions with limited annual rainfall. Managing water resources effectively during both water scarcity and periods of water excess is critical for successful farming.

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By |2020-10-09T21:21:02+00:00January 1st, 2017|Reports, Soil Health and Organic Farming Reports|

Nutrient Management for Crops, Soil and the Environment

Soil organic matter and soil organisms are the primary source of fertilizer on organic farms. In this context, the grower’s job is to protect and nourish soil life and replenish organic matter and nutrients removed in harvest.

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By |2020-10-09T21:24:07+00:00January 1st, 2017|Reports, Soil Health and Organic Farming Reports|

Practical Conservation Tillage

Organic farmers recognize healthy, living soil as the foundation of successful farming, and many seek practical means to reduce tillage in order to protect the soil organic matter, soil life, and improved tilth build up through green manures, compost applications, and other organic practices.

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By |2020-01-08T18:14:56+00:00January 1st, 2017|Soil Health and Organic Farming Reports|

Cover Crops: Selection and Management

Over the past 30 years, cover cropping has emerged as a key soil health and resource conservation practice for annual crop production. Truly sustainable agriculture must maintain effective vegetative cover of the soil, even when the field is not in production.

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By |2020-01-08T18:14:56+00:00January 1st, 2017|Reports, Soil Health and Organic Farming Reports|

Weed Management: An Ecological Approach

Organic farmers recognize healthy, living soils as essential for successful production. Perhaps the greatest soil health challenge relates to weed management, especially in annual crops. Without conventional herbicides, organic producers often use the practices of tillage and cultivation.

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By |2020-01-08T18:14:56+00:00January 1st, 2017|Soil Health and Organic Farming Reports|

Organic Practices for Climate Mitigation, Adaptation, and Carbon Sequestration

Climate change threatens agriculture and food security across the U.S. and around the world. Rising global mean temperatures have already intensified droughts, heat waves, and storms, and altered life cycles and geographical ranges of pests, weeds, and pathogens, making crop and livestock production more difficult. Intense rainstorms aggravate soil erosion and complicate water management, and higher temperatures accelerate oxidation of soil organic matter. Warming climates modify crop development regulated by growing degree-days or “chill hours,” and threaten production of perennial fruit and nut crops that have strict chilling requirements to initiate growth and fruit set. Thus, agricultural producers have a major stake in efforts to curb further climate change, as well as improving the resilience of their farming and ranching systems to the impacts of climate disruption.

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By |2020-05-29T19:21:33+00:00January 1st, 2017|Soil Health and Organic Farming Reports|

Understanding and Optimizing the Community of Soil Life

The goal of this guidebook is to help organic farmers navigate the wilderness of soil life and soil health management by providing up-to-date, science-based information on:

  • The soil food web, its key components, and functions.
  • Assessing and monitoring soil life and soil biological condition.
  • Managing soil life for long term soil health and productivity in organic systems.
  • Biological management of plant diseases.
  • Microbial inoculants and biostimulants: whether, when, and how to use them.
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By |2020-01-08T18:14:56+00:00January 1st, 2017|Soil Health and Organic Farming Reports|
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