March is always a busy time in the capital. Spring in DC not only means the cherry blossom trees are about to bloom, it also means Congress and advocacy organizations are hunkering down for a frenetic policymaking schedule that starts with the annual appropriations process. In the year leading up to the expiration of the farm bill, however, the phrase “March madness” takes on a whole new meaning. In preparation for crafting the 2018 farm bill (the current farm bill expires in September 2018), the Senate and House Agriculture Committees have begun hosting a series of meetings – both in-state as well as in DC – to gather stakeholder insights and recommendations.
At the end of February, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) hosted the Committee’s first field hearing in Kansas’ 1st District. Back in the capital, the House Agriculture Committee also kicked off a series of subcommittee hearings focusing on specific agricultural issue areas. Last week the House Committee held two separate subcommittee hearings focused on fleshing out issues likely to come up in the 2018 farm bill. On Thursday, February 9 the House Agriculture Committee Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy, and Credit held a hearing to examine how current rural development and energy programs are working and to learn about what challenges and opportunities need to be addressed in the next farm bill. Later that afternoon, the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research held their own hearing to discuss specialty crops and the next farm bill.
Rural Development and Energy
The Rural Development and Energy Program subcommittee hearing focused largely on infrastructure discussions, particularly on rural broadband. Unfortunately, the Subcommittee neglected to discuss the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development (RD) business and cooperative services programs. These programs have helped farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs create and expand thousands of local and regional food enterprises in rural America. RD administers a number of programs that we at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) view as a priority in the next farm bill, including: the Value Added Producer Grant program, Local and Regional Food Enterprise Guaranteed Loans, and Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program.
Specialty Crops and the 2018 Farm Bill
In contrast to the Rural Development hearing, the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research discussed a wide diversity of issues and programs during their farm bill hearing. The expert witnesses who testified before the panel came from across the country. They own or manage operations ranging in size and type, from a small acreage diversified organic farm to a large scale conventional specialty crop operations spanning multiple states.
Among the witnesses was Massachusetts farmer and President of the Board of Directors of the Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts Chapter (NOFA/Mass) Laura Davis. NOFA/Mass is a part of the NOFA Interstate Council, which is an NSAC member. NSAC helped to recruit and bring Laura to DC to provide her unique insight and testimony to the Subcommittee.
Laura and her husband, Donald Sutherland, own and operate Long Life Farm in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, a small acreage diversified organic farm on which they raise over 100 varieties of vegetables and fruit. Long Life Farm markets all of their produce direct to consumers through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, as well as through the Hopkinton Farmers Market (where Laura is a market organizer) and the Ashland Farmers Market. Laura is a prime example of a modern farmer who wears many hats – in addition to being an organic farmer, mother, and market manager, Laura is also an independent organic inspector. Laura’s unique and multi-faceted range of experiences made her an ideal witness to testify on the state of small, diversified farms and specialty crop production.
Laura’s testimony focused on the needs, opportunities and challenges facing small and medium-sized diversified organic specialty crop farms in the Northeast. Putting the situation in context for Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Davis (R-IL) and the rest of the Committee members, Laura stated,
“As everyone here in this room knows, farms of all types are struggling throughout the country. [With] more and more producers looking to local, regional and organic markets to diversify their businesses and ensure the long-term viability of their farms, it is critical that the next farm bill maintain or even increase current investments in those sectors of the agriculture economy – now is not the time to cut important programs serving agriculture and promoting rural jobs and economic opportunity.”
Throughout her testimony, Laura highlighted a number of USDA farm bill programs that have been key to supporting the tremendous growth within the local, regional and organic agriculture sector; many of which face potential funding cuts and service reductions as part of the 2018 farm bill negotiations. In particular, Laura highlighted the importance of the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Assistance and Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion programs, which have helped her and other farmers connect with new customers and expand the markets for local and regional food and farm products. Seeing both of these programs reauthorized and adequately funded in the next farm bill are priorities for NSAC.
Market access was another major component of Laura’s testimony. Laura explained to the Subcommittee that there were both opportunities and challenges that had surfaced in recent years for direct market farmers, and that one of the markets they needed to take better advantage of was from customers using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). NSAC and many farmers across the country thought that changes made to the last farm bill would have made it easier for farmers’ markets and CSAs to accept SNAP payments; but unfortunately, severe limitations in the implementation phase of the 2014 Farm Bill meant that the changed policies were not adequately implemented nationwide.
One example of the struggle CSA programs have in accepting SNAP benefits comes from Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, MA. Many Hands has one customer who uses SNAP, which means that once per week they must set up their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) machine, which connects via dial-up and requires a staff person to be present when the customer picks up. This means firstly that Many Hands must have wireless access enabled at their pickup location, and more importantly that staff must interrupt their work day to manage the EBT pickup – all other shares are picked up by customers without someone there to assist them.
Many other farms that participate in CSA program may deliver the shares to more convenient drop off points for their customers each week. Because CSA programs are based upon payment at the beginning of the season, many operators are not set up to accept a weekly payment from a SNAP customer using EBT at an off-farm site. Hurdles accepting SNAP payments not only prevent farmers from benefiting from SNAP dollars, it also prevents those who are most in need of fresh, nutritious foods from accessing them if they cannot get to the farm. NSAC will be looking at innovative ways to address this barrier in the next farm bill.
The last major areas of concern for the specialty crop industry that Laura discussed were the issues of food safety and research support.
“While it is not a concern for my farm at the current size, like every small business owner I hope my small farm business will continue to grow,” said Laura, “and that means I will have to become increasingly focused on compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) produce regulations. From my perspective the next farm bill needs to invest more resources in outreach, education, technical assistance and cost-share assistance for farmers to support FSMA compliance.”
NSAC has advocated for expanding funding for the Food Safety Outreach Program, which helps producers of all sizes understand if and how FSMA affects their operation, as well as trains them on FSMA compliance rules and regulations.
Laura concluded her testimony by discussing the importance of the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative for America’s organic growers and emphasizing the need to not only just continue, but to expand the program’s funding. In fact, Laura was hardly the only witness to discuss the importance of farmer-led and on-farm research to agriculture. Maintaining and expanding investments in research was a key theme of all of the witnesses’ testimony. Particular attention was placed upon the role of the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and The Specialty Crop Research Initiative; witness pointed out to the Subcommittee how important those program have been to farmers’ ability to conduct, and also to share and promote the results of critical agricultural research.
NSAC is grateful for the deep knowledge and understanding shared by Laura and her fellow witnesses.
Immigration and Research
While the focus of the hearing was on specialty crop producers and the farm bill, it was impossible to not discuss the elephant in the room – the potential for labor shortages as a result of the Administration’s immigration restrictions.
Even though House Agriculture Committee does not have jurisdiction over immigration and labor issues and there is little the farm bill can do to address the topic, witnesses still felt compelled to explain the burden such restrictions have placed on specialty crop operations. Immigration reform, the Labor Department’s guest worker program, and the uncertain future of immigration and farm labor in America were repeatedly raised throughout the hearing
James Field of Frey Farms, a multi state specialty crop operation that has farms and facilities in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia and Wisconsin, captured the mood and opinions of many in the room by saying:
“The reality is this: a vast majority of the nation’s foreign-born farm workers do not have proper work authorization. [T]he emphasis on enforcement without an accompanying, effective legal [agricultural] guest worker program puts our industry, and our nation’s ability to sustainability and affordably feed our people, in jeopardy,”
Hearing Season to Continue
Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees will continue to hold hearings throughout the spring as the 2018 Farm Bill and appropriations debates heat up. Stay tuned for more coverage from NSAC in the coming weeks.