Media Releases, Legislative News, Agricultural Updates
Each month we share one of our top five priorities for the 2023 Food and Farm Bill. In this article, we will discuss our fourth priority:
As always, you can learn more about our full Farm Bill platform and how your member-led policy directs our efforts at www.rmfu.org/federal-legislation.
How can we make USDA programs more accessible for farms and ranches of all scales?
There is an old saying that ‘if you eat, you’re involved in agriculture’ and that is certainly true when it comes to the Farm Bill. That is why it is commonly referred to as the Food and Farm Bill. Not only does it contain programs that support food production by providing a safety net, funding research, and offering conservation programs; the majority of Farm Bill funding supports nutrition programs for people experiencing hunger. There are historic challenges of equitable access to many of these programs, however. In recent years USDA has made great strides in evaluating how its programs function to ensure that the Americans who need its services most receive them. This past February the USDA Equity Commission, led by then Deputy Secretary Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, published an interim report detailing their priorities in this arena -many of the same priorities that RMFU has been advocating for.
It is important to recognize that we need farms and ranches of all shapes and sizes to adequately meet the needs of our citizens. It is also true that in the past forty years, because of lax oversight, enforcement, and a need to modernize antitrust laws, our value chain has consolidated. This had led to a lack of competition, and large non-family corporate farms receive a disproportionate amount of USDA farm program funding. While it can be a challenge to classify the scale of a farm or ranch being that measurement based on sales or acreage can be troublesome, most USDA programs are not designed to account for the diversity of production and marketing that exists for many operations today. For example, a perennial fruit orchard may have challenges implementing certain conservation incentives like annual cover crops or a small, diversified vegetable farm may have forty varieties of products and that can be a difficult to insure. The ability to hedge risk is vital to the sustainability of any agricultural operation, especially with a changing climate and with the current lack of true competition within markets.
This is why we are endorsing bills like the Whole Farm Revenue Protection Improvement Act and the Small Farm Conservation Act. Both of which will create better opportunities for small producers to participate in conservation and insurance programs. We are also happy to see improvements that have recently been made to the Micro Farm program. According to USDA, “the Micro Farm program provides a risk management safety net for all commodities on your farm under one insurance policy. This insurance plan is tailored for any farm with up to $350,000 in approved revenue, including farms with specialty or organic commodities (both crops and livestock), or those marketing to local, regional, farm-identity preserved, specialty, or direct markets.” We are also actively engaging in crafting other legislation to ensure family farm and ranch viability on several fronts.
How can we make USDA programs and services more accessible for all involved in agriculture?
Beyond challenges for program eligibility for farms and ranches of different scales or production models, other groups of producers have also faced barriers in accessing programs and services -USDA loans in particular. In fact, producers from the RMFU region joined plaintiffs that brought forward credible complaints in lawsuits over the past few decades such as Garcia v. Vilsack, Keepseagle v. Vilsack, and Pigford v. Glickman. These cases led to settlements as well as a claims process. And, ultimately, to USDA’s commitment to identifying opportunities for improvement mentioned earlier.
To that end, RMFU’s policy clearly speaks to our position that any current or future federal agricultural policies should be meant to serve all producers and we support equality and equity under law for all citizens. The following segment is taken from our Farm Bill priorities on this topic:
We are asking for USDA to continue to work towards reducing barriers for participation by historically underserved, underrepresented populations. Significant paperwork to determine program eligibility and the occasional need to work with two or three different government agencies (Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Internal Revenue Service) can be a challenge in order to be considered eligible for many of the programs that we support in the Farm Bill. Historically underserved and lower income farmers and ranchers may not have access to service providers to help them navigate forms with multiple family members or entities and longstanding farm and ranch families of color may have had previous discriminatory encounters with these agencies, making it difficult or uncomfortable to come into an office and work with these agencies. In addition, these offices may be located a significant distance from their home, providing a personal and financial cost to participation, especially to update forms as they change or to keep their eligibility as the process often stretches across multiple agency fiscal years. Grant reporting can also be a challenge for smaller businesses and organizations. Particularly if these entities have not historically participated in these programs.
Our policy reflects the reality that Native American/Indigenous producers have distinct structural challenges in accessing land, capital, water, agricultural programs, and services. We encourage a review of current and future federal agricultural policies and programs to ensure that equal access is provided and that these programs serve all producers.
The USDA definitions of Socially Disadvantaged, Historically Underserved, Beginning Farmers and Ranchers, Women Farmers and Ranchers, Limited Resource Household and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers are often conflated, confusing, and inconsistent. RMFU appreciates the recent strides that USDA has taken to create more equitable programming and asks for more consistency throughout program eligibility and outreach to these individuals and communities. Further, we ask for a publicly available accountability score to be determined annually for the agency, and the programs that USDA offers, to improve equitable access.
Building upon USDA’s renewed commitment to farmworkers and their families, we call for the creation of a new program, similar to the Fair Food Program, that distinguishes all agricultural end products that meet fair pricing and quality of work standards through the use of a label, which would allow consumers to buy with confidence while rewarding better agricultural practices and working conditions. We ask USDA to create transparency and market-based incentives for this program. Incentives could include ranking higher for program payments or qualifying for lower cost-share requirements for farms/ranches that are in good standing within the program. Programs like these could allow workers to gain more market share to increase wages, create accountability of employers for fair standards and to respond to grievances, and get buy-in from food product end users to ensure that goods are not purchased at below production and labor rates. This worker-driven and values-based program should be certifiable with reliable monitoring, market-rewarded and market-enforced.
These reforms can only succeed if local FSA/NRCS/USFS/BLM offices are effective and fully staffed. Here are some recommendations to ensure success within these offices:
Share your voice and help shape the future of farming and ranching in the Rocky Mountain region.Become a Member