NFU Fall Legislative Fly-in and the Farm Bill

The National Farmers Union (NFU) was founded over 110 years ago and advocates for grassroots policy change that supports the welfare of family farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and consumers. NFU writes, “We promote sustainable production of food, feed, fiber, and fuel and work with our 200,000 member families nationwide to support smart farm policies, educate the public and develop the next generation of farm leaders.” To achieve this mission, the nationwide organization coordinates legislative fly-ins in the spring and fall every year as critical issues come before Congress for a vote.

2018 USDA Briefing_photo by NFUThese events allow Farmers Union members to meet directly with their lawmakers and USDA officials and to share their perspectives on how farm and food policy affects their livelihoods, and to advocate for family farmers and ranchers across the country. At the most recent fly-in on September 11th through the 14th, NFU hosted over 350 farmers and ranchers for this lobbying session; this level of attendance was especially cogent with the impending 2018 Farm Bill up for a vote. Participants were briefed by the USDA and met with legislators to reiterate the need for strong protections for farmers from an ongoing trade war, promote farm and ranch sustainability through continued access to vital conservation and management programs, improve accessibility to diversified and local markets, and support the transition to a renewable biofuel future for America.

At the briefing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NFU affiliates heard from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Gregory Ibach, USDA Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett, and U.S. Trade Representative Chief Agriculture Negotiator Gregg Doud. Although Sonny Perdue has pledged to be an advocate for American agriculture, he didn’t seem to fully register the dire situation the ongoing tariff battle has created for so many farmers; I heard multiple personal stories during this briefing from farmers that need access to diversified markets; that have spent the last decade or more building up markets (per the U.S.’s direction), only to be wiped out in months. Small family dairy farms are hemorrhaging money daily.  

Perdue declared the trade war would ultimately be good for American farmers, and they need to trust our government’s leadership. Ultimately, he proclaimed that other countries started this trade war because of their unwillingness to negotiate with the Trump Administration.

Throughout the briefing, there were times set aside for attendants to ask questions. There was no shortage of farmers and ranchers lining up to know what the future would look like for them. The consistent answer that seemed to infuriate, rather than satisfy the room, was that there would be light at the end of the tunnel and no administrator could pinpoint what a winning situation would look like for American family farmers. This talking point hollowly reverberated in the face of one farmer’s widow, who stood to share that her husband had committed suicide just months before because her family was losing their generational farm. She begged for a farm bill with robust financial assistance and healthcare that included mandatory mental health coverage for farmers.

The House and Senate have already passed their own versions of the Farm Bill, but as of today, have failed to submit a conference bill. The House Bill, which passed on June 21, does not reauthorize mandatory funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) and eliminates mandatory funding for Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG). The House version also does not reauthorize monies for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP). This version also cuts $800M from conservation programs over 10 years. In contrast, the Senate version, passed a week later, maintains overall funding for conservation programs and combines the administration for VAPG and FMLFPP and provides mandatory funding of $60M for each fiscal year. The Senate version also maintains funding for NOCCSP at $11.5M per fiscal year. With the expiration of the 2014 farm bill and no new farm bill in place as of Oct. 1, it’s hard to know how many programs and to what extent they will be impacted. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for example, is now on hold, and no further payments can be dispersed after early this month until a new farm bill is in place. “The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a land conservation program administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA). In exchange for a yearly rental payment, farmers enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.” This program has been successful in improving water quality, reducing soil erosion, and increasing habitats for endangered and threatened species since it was signed into law in 1985. 

I had the opportunity to pose two questions to Anne Hazlett regarding the recent discovery of PFAS in multiple Michigan communities and what they were specifically doing to ameliorate the situation. According to Hazlett, a military work group headed by Jason Allen, State Director for USDA Rural Development in Michigan, was created as a result of the PFAS discovery. Their current plan moving forward is to “see what best practice to use with the existing tools we have.” Additionally, I asked for a timeline of when rural communities could see any of the increased access to internet broadband we’ve been hearing about. You can track the ongoing progress for broadband expansion here on the USDA’s website, but at present only $600M has been designated for increasing broadband access nationwide.

This author contacted Lillie J. Brady, the Associate Director of the Office of External and Intergovernmental Affairs at the USDA via email to gather some follow-up info on PFAS and broadband access in Michigan. She haven’t heard back as of yet.

Molly Stepanski is the Local Food Coordinator for Northeast Michigan and owns and operates Presque Isle Farm with her family. She enjoys digging, planting, and hiking in the dirt; cooking up her own recipes; and eating lots of fresh, seasonal produce (and anything deep-fried, in accordance with her southern heritage). Contact her at [email protected]