|Congressmen Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza, Central Valley Democrats, held a farm bill forum on April 28 in Fresno, California. This forum came on the heels of the Senate Agriculture Committee passing its 2012 Farm Bill out of committee and the House Agriculture Committee beginning its hearings on the bill. Without passage of a farm bill in 2012, key programs that support sustainable, rural communities and healthy food may be in jeopardy of deep cuts (see “Farm Bill Progress” above).
The California Caucus of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which includes CalCAN, reached out to local farmers to participate in the forum, and I attended.
John Teixeira, CCOF member and former Fresno-Tulare Chapter chair, presented at the forum. The Firebaugh, CA-farmer noted the growing number of organic farms in the valley, saying: “A number of my neighbors are adopting organic farming practices because of the economic, health, and environmental benefits it provides.”
John highlighted the importance of key organic programs, including the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program and conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program. John also noted the need to prioritize USDA research of locally-adaptive cultivars because “seed is the backbone of agriculture, and without the varieties that are best suited to our local climate, soil, disease, and pests, we cannot be competitive.”
Dwayne Cardoza, CCOF Fresno-Tulare Chapter chair, Steve Koretoff, CCOF board member, and organic producers Mike Smith and Will Scott joined with John to make one of the largest contingents of farmers at the forum. At the forum’s end, the organic growers spoke with Congressman Costa about a number of key issues, including support for farmers’ markets and the need to eliminate the surcharge on organic crop insurance.
Part history text, part socio-political commentary and part call to action, Dan Imhoff’s new book offers something for everyone from the seasoned agriculture advocate to the newcomer on the food systems scene. “Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill,” published just a couple of months ago by Dan’s company Watershed Media comes just as the federal debate over the 2012 Farm Bill is heating up.
The book is divided into three sections: Why the Farm Bill Matters; Wedge Issues; and, Turning the Tables. To set the context, Dan summarizes the early history of the farm bill, describing the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and the overproduction of crops that led to its creation as a cornerstone of the New Deal. The history lesson continues with a short summary of the impact of the Green Revolution on farm bill policy, as well as the story of how the bill came to include hunger and nutrition programs, and the ebb and flow of conservation programs to incentivize environmental stewardship on the nation’s farms and ranches. And because no discussion on the farm bill would be complete without discussing commodity subsidies, that’s covered too.
After laying down the foundation, Dan devotes the rest of the book to strategic topics. He lays out a number of “wedge issues” that could change the terms of the farm bill debate — things like government deficits, the increasingly apparent impacts of climate change on agriculture and other emerging ecological crises, the rise of the local food movement, food security concerns, and more.
The last few pages of the book are devoted to “turning the tables” and Dan offers a checklist of 25 ideas whose time has come — an aspirational menu for American agriculture. Finally, he provides a succinct activist tool kit with tips on organizing and a resource list of organizations across the country engaged in progressive advocacy on the farm bill and related issues.
Perhaps my favorite quote from the book — maybe because I can relate to it – is this one:
“I confess, I am a reluctant policy wonk. But these are the issues of our times. If Americans don’t weigh in on the Farm Bill, the agribusiness lobbyists will be more than happy to draft the next one for us as they have done for at least 30 years.”
The book is available online at Watershed Media where you can also see a number of other of Dan’s books. You can also order it on the action-oriented Food Fight site that features farm bill-related events, news and a “what you can do” section.
Reposted courtesy of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)
March 30, 2012
On Thursday, March 29, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Rural Energy Investment Act (S. 2270) which would reauthorize and provide mandatory funding for several programs in the Farm Bill’s Energy Title. The bill would provide $1.285 billion in farm bill mandatory funding over five years, including support for two farmer-based programs (see below) plus the Biorefinery Assistance Program which provides funding to companies developing commercial advanced biofuel plants.
Senators Kent Conrad (D-ND), Amy Klobuuchar (D-MN) and Al Franken (D-MN) are cosponsors of the bill.
NSAC is supportive of the bill’s provisions for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). That portion of the bill would:
- Simplify the application process for small projects by creating a three-tiered application system with application simplicity reflecting the size of the project;
- Strengthen the environmental and health provisions by requiring USDA to include stronger environmental and health aspects in its award considerations; and
- Expand start-up support for feasibility studies so that rural farmers and businesses can start projects with sound planning.
These provisions are the same as those in Senate Bill 2225 introduced by Senators Franken (D-MN) and Harkin (D-IA) on March 22, 2012.
The Rural Energy Investment Act would authorize mandatory farm bill funding for REAP of $70 million per year from FY2013 through FY2017.
The new bill would also amend the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) to:
- Allow lands scheduled to come out of the Conservation Reserve Program to be prepared for biomass crop production during the last fiscal year of their conservation enrollment schedule;
- Define “qualifying eligible material” to better specify what materials are eligible to apply for collection, harvest, storage, and transportation payments and change payment limits to a maximum of $25 per dry ton for a maximum of 3 years;
- Reduce the maximum number of years for contracts for establishing woody biomass feedstocks from 15 to 7 years;
- Cap crop establishment payments at $500 per acre and at 50 percent cost share, but increase those limits to $750 per acre and to 75 percent for beginning, socially disadvantaged, and geographically disadvantaged farmers or ranchers; and
- Provide USDA with additional authorities to limit CHST payments to avoid wasteful payments.
In our 2012 Farm Bill Platform, NSAC calls for more comprehensive reforms of BCAP, including to:
- Eliminate the CHST component of the program given the very significant problems with the Farm Service Agency implementation of the CHST component;
- Ensure that BCAP projects for the establishment of bioenergy crops conform to the program purpose of establishing new bioenergy crops, particularly perennials;
- Require that, if project money is used to fund the production of an annual crop for bioenergy, annual crops must be part of a resource-conserving crop rotation;
- Ensure that the BCAP project component is competitive and only available for developing new sources of energy;
- Require that NRCS play a central role in the development and implementation of BCAP conservation plans; and
- Deny BCAP eligibility for commodity program crop residues.
The new bill would authorize mandatory farm bill funding for BCAP of $75 million per year from FY2013 through FY2017.
Reposted from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)
March 22, 2012
This week, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack released a report entitled The Impact of the Rural Energy for America Program on Promoting Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The Report summarizes the energy efficiency and renewable energy projects funded by the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) over the last three years, 2009 through 2011. It also includes a state-by-state summary of REAP renewable energy projects, with a profile of selected projects.
Overall, during the 3-year period covered by the report, REAP accomplished the following:
- Supported 5,733 renewable energy and energy efficiency projects nationwide;
- Generated or saved an estimated 6.5 million megawatt hours of power;
- Provided $192 million in grants and $165 million in loan guarantees to agricultural producers and rural small business owners for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements; and
- Fostered partnerships that have leveraged an estimated $800 million from other sources.
Since the Program was first established in the 2002 Farm Bill, it has provided resources for more than 13,000 rural small businesses and agricultural producers, saved enough energy to power nearly 600,000 American homes for a year, and funded more than 1,000 solar projects and more than 560 wind projects.
REAP provides grants, loan guarantees, and a combination of grants and loan guarantees to rural small businesses and agricultural producers. USDA is taking applications for guaranteed loans for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements through June 29, 2012. Applications for REAP grants and loan/grant combinations are due no later than March 30th.
Additional information on applying for REAP funding is available in the Federal Register funding notice issued January 20. You can also contact your USDA Rural Development state office for more information.
Family farmers joined program administrators and others yesterday in telling the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee that if you want to do some environmental good and help ensure a reliable food supply, make sure federal conservation programs are well-funded under Farm Bill 2012.
Conservation was the focus of the ag panel’s second farm bill hearing on Tuesday, February 28. Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White told the senators there is continued high demand for conservation programs despite rising crop prices that seem destined to move some conservation lands back into production.
According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), White singled out the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) as a particularly popular option among farmers. “I have been stunned by the demand for this program,” said White. “We have to turn millions of acres away this year. CSP is where the cutting edge in conservation will become the mainstream. It is the only way we will be able to sustain the land in order to feed 9 billion people.”
Minnesota farmer Darrel Mosel told the committee that the CSP “is a program that allows farmers to farm and at the same time enhance the conservation performance and environmental outcomes of their operation. I believe that CSP is a shining example of what’s right in farm policy.”
The NSAC staff members attended yesterday’s hearing and provided a full report on the proceedings including additional commentary from family farmers making use of conservation programs to enhance production and preserve environmental quality.
The Ecofarm Conference is always an energizing experience, but this year the currents of change seemed particularly electrifying. Maybe it was the weather, which was unusually warm and sunny along California’s Central Coast in early February. Maybe it was the impressive number of young people who have caught hold of the Ecofarm vision of farming in concert with nature. Maybe it was simply the incredible enthusiasm of the 1,700 farmers and food activists who gathered at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove.
Attendees came together under the conference theme of “Raising EcoFarmers’ Voices.” Throughout the three-day gathering, that theme echoed as plenary speakers like food policy activist and current Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie reminded the group that California has always provided leadership to the food and farm movement. Engaging in the discussion and creation of public policy around food and farming is crucial, said Ritchie.
“Policy is important because policy shapes the future,” he said. “If we want things to keep getting better, we have to stay involved.”
Other presenters issued similar calls for increased participation at the local, state, and national level. As part of our work toward a climate-friendly food and farm economy, CalCAN moderated two workshops on engaging citizen participation in the push for a Farm Bill that protects conservation, organic and beginning farmer programs.
On a more hands-on level, we facilitated a workshop highlighting the climate-friendly efforts of the Fetzer/Bonterra Vineyards and those of organic walnut producer Russ Lester of Dixon Ridge Farm in Winters, CA.
Fetzer/Bonterra has done pioneering work in organic wine grape production and recently completed a survey of vineyard properties to develop a benchmark for determining the level of carbon sequestration taking place in the soils, forests and borders surrounding its vineyards.
Russ Lester told workshop attendees about the many ways he has found to create a more climate-friendly farming environment. He noted that government-funded subsidies and grants have been beneficial in helping him reduce the carbon footprint on his farm. He also showcased a system he’s developed enabling him to burn waste walnut shells to generate electricity. Thanks to a bill, the Renewable Energy Equity Act, sponsored by CalCAN, Dixon is now able to connect to the grid and cut his energy costs while lowering his carbon footprint by producing renewable energy from a waste product.
Research, innovation, policy change — all require commitment at the individual level. People coming together to move the farm and food agenda forward in a positive way. That’s the message Ecofarm delivered, and it’s the vision CalCAN carries forward in its work to be the sustainable agriculture voice for climate-friendly farming in California. In coming days, we’ll be moving to increase our organizing activity and our potential for making policy change here in California as we launch the Food and Climate Project. Through this project we’ll be reaching out to organizations, individuals, and businesses with an invitation to take action on initiatives that help California’s farmers and ranchers adapt to climate change and unleash their potential for providing climate benefits. Stay tuned for more details, or contact Ted Quaday, CalCAN’s Campaign Director, for more information.
Speaking Truth to Power — CA Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Producers and Advocates in Washington, D.C.
As a former crop insurance agent and current organic almond producer and processor from a long-time farm family in Fresno, Steve Koretoff spoke truth to power in a recent visit to Washington, D.C. Mr. Koretoff joined six representatives of the California caucus of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) for meetings with congressional staff to discuss farm bill priorities, including defending organic and conservation programs from disproportionate funding cuts.
Later this month, the Senate Agriculture Committee will begin hearings on the 2012 Farm Bill. The hearings come after the failed Super Committee process where, as part of a larger deficit reduction package, congressional leaders attempted to finalize a new farm bill. Also later this month, NSAC will release its coalition farm bill platform, which outlines, in detail, proposed changes to the farm bill to better support family farmers, conservation, local and regional food markets, renewable energy and rural communities.
At the end of January, our delegation of sustainable and organic agriculture advocates and producers met with the offices of several members of California’s congressional delegation – Democrats and Republicans alike. Top on our agenda was urging support for two NSAC-sponsored farm bill “marker bills”: The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act.
Together, the two bills would create new local food market opportunities for farmers and consumers, improve organic farm programs, including organic crop insurance, and ease access to land and capital for beginning farmers and ranchers – all key issues for California agriculture.
Steve Koretoff knows first-hand the importance of organic and conservation programs and the need to see changes to better support conservation-oriented farms. Among the issues he raised in our meetings with congressional staff is the 5 percent surcharge holders of organic crop insurance have to pay on top of their premiums, a charge that their conventional neighbors do not pay. Experience has shown that organic farming is not any more risky than its conventional counterpart. Thus, such a surcharge on organic crop insurance creates an unfair disadvantage for organic producers. The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act would eliminate the organic surcharge and level the playing field for organic producers.
Many of the issues addressed in the two NSAC-sponsored bills were also raised as key farm bill priorities by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Get involved by asking your Congressional member to support the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act and Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act. Click here to see a growing list of bill co-sponsors.
First, the effects of climate change are already being felt by farmers across the country. The extreme weather events of 2011 throughout the United States — including severe floods and drought, and the related economic losses into the billions of dollars — have raised awareness about the vulnerability of agriculture to more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns. Farmers, government agencies and policymakers are now considering how to be better prepared for weather extremes, including reforming how we insure farms against catastrophic losses.
Second, in the recent flurry of farm bill activity sparked by the (now failed) “super committee” process, robust debates began on how to spend public money on supporting the country’s food and farming system. There is every indication that powerful agribusiness interests will agree to reduce, or in some cases eliminate, commodity payments that for decades have guaranteed billions of dollars in revenue for producers of the major commodities (e.g., corn, soy, wheat, rice, cotton, etc.). However, this historic concession will come with a significant tradeoff — namely, the expansion of federal crop insurance payments, essentially continuing the practice of minimizing economic risk for producers of these crops. Farmers need good crop insurance. The question is how crop insurance is structured, which will impact not only what is grown and how, but whether or not taxpayers are on the hook for what could be expensive and risky policies.
Lastly, all of these debates come at time when federal policy decisions continue to be examined through the lens of budgetary austerity, and farm bill programs are no exception. In the case of crop insurance, which must be considered in light of climate change, the challenge will be to sort out what risk management programs and policies are truly the most economical and sustainable over the long term.
A new briefing, A Risky Proposition: Crop Insurance in the Face of Climate Change by the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP) makes the case that farmers need adequate insurance, particularly in view of increased challenges caused by climate change. But the authors also argue that the support should be coupled with measures that mitigate climate change risk for agriculture and increase on-farm resilience. To do otherwise, they say, is “like offering a home owner a fire insurance policy, but not even requiring the most basic preventative measures, such as smoke alarms or fire extinguishers.”
As the authors note the current system of taxpayer-backed farm insurance isn’t working as well as it needs to. Some highlights:
- Organic operations — arguably among the most resilient farming systems — pay a five percent surcharge on their insurance policies, and any losses they incur are reimbursed at conventional crop prices without consideration of the higher market value of organic products. This disadvantage should be corrected in the next farm bill.
- Of particular relevance to California is the fact that fruit and vegetable producers have fewer options under the federal insurance program.
- Most crop insurance policies favor less diverse operations by making it difficult to insure integrated, multi-crop, mixed crop/livestock systems. Yet one of the most important tools for resilience to climate change and other unpredictable events is to diversify. This practice must be re-examined and revised to encourage and reward diversification.
One potential solution is whole-farm revenue insurance. Our colleagues at the National Center for Appropriate Technology, in a report funded by the USDA Risk Management Agency (available by emailing Jeffs@ncat.org), make the following case:
Whole-farm revenue insurance is not currently the major way many farmers insure their production in the United States. Seventy-six percent of the total liability covered by federally subsidized crop insurance in 2010 was attributed to four crops: corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton. However, whole-farm revenue insurance could provide a more effective way to insure not only specialty crops, but all crop and livestock production in the United States. Rather than the continued proliferation of single-crop based insurance products, whole-farm revenue insurance would likely be a less costly way to provide publically subsidized insurance for farmers. We understand that one key to sustainability in agriculture is expanding crop and livestock diversity.
We believe that critical analyses and innovative proposals such as these by IATP and NCAT should underlie decisions in the next and future farm bills. Solving multiple complex problems such as agricultural risk management, climate change preparedness and economic frugality demands it.
The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service recently released a new guide, The Natural Resources Credit Trading Reference. The reference is intended for NRCS staff, policymakers, and others interested in the potential of the marketplace to incentivize conservation and ecosystem services from agriculture.
The guide attempts to tackle the critiques of those who remain skeptical that developing a marketplace of buyers and sellers of ecosystem services will achieve greater environmental stewardship in agriculture, compared to traditional conservation programs and command and control regulation, and outlines how such markets might best be developed.
Whether you’re a convert to the powers of the marketplace to bring about greater stewardship of the environment or wary of Chicago commodity traders getting into the business of trading water, carbon and other environmental goods, as someone concerned with sustainable agriculture, it is useful to understand the pros and cons of environmental credit trading. It’s the current policy idea du jour.
How to achieve greater environmental stewardship?
For decades economists have noted the problems of externalities leading to environmental pollution. Since the benefits of clean air, water, and healthy soil aren’t factored into the price of most goods we buy there is no incentive, economists argue, for the producers of those goods – food, shoes, cars, you name it – to conduct their business in a way that protects the environment and minimizes pollution.
To make sure our rivers don’t burn as they once famously did in Ohio and our air doesn’t choke us, in the 1970s Congress passed landmark legislation – the Clean Water, Safe Drinking Water, and Clean Air Acts – that regulated companies to prevent pollution and safeguard our environment. And those laws are largely credited with significant improvements in our environment – the rivers don’t burn anymore and air quality has improved in many areas. But we still have environmental pollution, and we’re now aware of more complex environmental problems like climate change.
How can we better address the environmental pollution problems in our communities and tackle the complexities of issues like climate change? Some argue that if we can put a price on the benefits of ecosystem services like clean water and air and reduced greenhouse gas emissions then we can use the power of the market to achieve more cost-effective and more nimble solutions to our environmental problems.
Can we put a price on it?
The new USDA guide focuses on environmental credit trading schemes, which are set up as an exchange where a regulated entity, say a power plant, pays the producer of ecosystems services (clean air, water, biodiversity, etc.), such as a farmer, to meet greater environmental stewardship goals and achieve the standard set forth in the regulation.
The authors outline essential features for developing an effective market for ecosystem services. Key features include an agreement on the commodity that is being traded, which in the arena of biological ecosystem services can get complex fast. The authors note , for example, the commodity is in the form of carbon sequestration – the ability to store atmospheric carbon, a greenhouse gas, in soils and woody biomass – what happens if a change in agricultural practice or a forest fire releases the carbon? Who is responsible for the loss of carbon? Is the commodity price discounted to account for the potential of carbon loss? By how much?
Another essential feature of effective markets, they argue, is a price for the commodity must be established and be transparent. But little attention in the guide discusses how to set prices. How much is clean air worth? And if the clean air provided by a farm is intended to offset the air pollution from a factory is that clean air commodity traded at a one-to-one value (i.e. is the clean air benefit from the farm equal to the loss of clean air from the factory?) or not? If not, what’s the difference?
Ecosystem models have become more sophisticated in recent years, and the authors argue the models can be used effectively to estimate the amount of ecosystem benefit from agricultural activities to help inform the development of the market. But a model is only as good as its data. If we depend upon models to estimate the ecosystem service provided by agriculture, we’ll need regional and in some cases local data (soil, climate, etc.) to calibrate them.
Moreover, a model may be able to account for how a change in agricultural practice can achieve a reduction in water contamination, but it may miss how that change affects air quality, wildlife habitat or GHG emissions. And what if one activity is good for improving water quality, but it hurts biodiversity? How do we determine these trade-offs?
Can the marketplace help transform agriculture?
In a November article in Science, a group of researchers recently highlighted the promise and peril of paying for ecosystem services. They argue that few existing ecosystem payment programs pay for ecosystem services that address multiple benefits.
They note: “Incentives for biofuels production that promote conversion of tropical forests to tilled fields may reduce carbon storage and habitat that supports biodiversity. Incentives for habitat protection that create corridors between protected areas may increase disease risks by increasing contact between wild and domesticated animals. Where ecosystem services are jointly produced, paying for only one service can be as damaging as paying for none.”
A central tenant of sustainable agriculture is the importance of taking a whole farm systems approach. That is, to create a more sustainable, biological farming system we must take an integrated approach to managing the soil, pests, habitat, etc. of the farm.
The new USDA reference outlines important considerations to developing effective market-based mechanisms to achieve greater environmental stewardship in agriculture. It is worth a read. But it is this central tenant of sustainable agriculture that they do not adequately address: Can the buyers and sellers of ecosystem services avoid the unintended consequences of rewarding the improvement of one aspect of our environment without degrading others?