Over 300 people from across the U.S. attended the annual convention of the National Farmers Union (NFU) in San Francisco this week to hear from speakers on a range of topics and to approve their policy platform. The NFU formed in 1902 to represent family farmers, fishers and ranchers across the country, with formally organized divisions in 33 states. NFU has a grassroots structure in which policy positions are initiated locally and approved by delegates from the full membership at their convention.
The March 6 program included appearances by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, CDFA Secretary Karen Ross, and Glenda Humiston, Vice-President of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. All three emphasized the role of their agencies in providing resources to address climate change and serve small and medium-sized producers.
Ms. Humiston spoke of the critical role of Cooperative Extension and technical assistance generally. She described a new California Conservation Planning Partnership, an agreement between UC ANR, CDFA, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts that will seek to streamline and define their roles and coordinate their climate-related services such as research, farmer outreach and education, and evaluation and monitoring.
Secretary Ross, speaking to a primarily non-Californian audience, described the climate-related challenges facing California agriculture such as drought, extreme heat, and catastrophic wildfire, citing them as examples of evidence that “something is changing in our atmosphere.” She spoke about the state’s Climate Smart Agriculture programs as strategies for optimizing agriculture’s “magic solution of how to draw down carbon and store it in our soils, assuring that we will have productivity now and in future generations.” She talked about targeting funding to support under-served farmers through the technical assistance of Cooperative Extension, the RCDs and non-profit organizations. Secretary Ross also highlighted three CDFA climate goals: increase compost applications by 40,000 acres per year, increase cover crops by 20,000 acres and expand use of no-till by 20,000 acres per year.
Secretary Vilsack delivered the same central message he shared at the recent annual meeting of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (and using the same white board technique to illustrate his points). He sees Climate Smart Agriculture as an alternative to the “get big or get out” philosophy that has driven American agriculture since then 1970’s when Secretary Earl Butz called on farmers to maximize fencepost-to-fencepost productivity, abandoning many of the New Deal principles that had characterized agriculture policy for decades.
The Secretary noted that 2022 farm profits were at a record high, yet they were accrued to only 10 percent of farm owners, three to four percent of which are investors, not farmers. Fifty percent of farms lost income last year, and 40 percent had to work off-farm to subsidize the farm. He believes that this trend can be reversed by focusing on creating new climate-related revenue opportunities for small and medium-sized farm operations. The Secretary said that policy and funding tools such as the Farm Bill, the Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities program, and the conservation agriculture funding in the Inflation Reduction Act can “create new revenue streams, make American agriculture more competitive on the international market, and demonstrate that there is innovation in rural areas that the next generation of farmers can get excited about.”
Moving Forward in a Farm Bill Year
It’s encouraging to see USDA, CDFA and many sustainable and family farm advocacy groups such as NFU prioritizing agricultural conservation as a climate change strategy – especially when going in to a Farm Bill year. This is the first in history when there has been so much alignment on making the Farm Bill a climate bill.
It’s up to us to ensure that this Farm Bill delivers the resources needed to build a healthier and more climate-resilient agriculture system that prioritizes the needs of small and medium-sized and historically disenfranchised farmers and ranchers.
The details of the Farm Bill will be especially important this year, so we hope you will join us in the months ahead by watching for opportunities to raise your voice.