By Mark Schonebeck
On January 21-24, representatives of the 100+ member organizations of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) will gather in the nation’s capital to continue our work toward a more sustainable USDA and Federal Farm Policy. On the 23rd, we will bring our priorities to Capitol Hill, visiting with agricultural legislative aides to key Senators and Representatives – especially those who sit on the Agriculture Committees – to present our case for our Farm Bill priorities. That day, I will visit with aides to Representative Bob Goodlatte (6th District) who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, as well as my Representatives Morgan Griffith (9th) and Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Thus:
- Let me know if you have any specific concerns, ideas, or needs that you would like me to communicate to our Senators and Representatives – farmer stories are one of the most effective lobbying tools for the Farm Bill. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
- I am sorry to be missing the VABF Conference, which is scheduled at the same time as NSAC. I aim to stay in touch with Board President Brent Wills during that time – and feel free to e-mail me from the Conference if you have something policy-related to share.
In preparation for this “farm bill year,” NSAC developed a Platform for the 2018 Farm Bill (http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/nsac-farm-bill-2018-platform/), with emphasis on strengthening conservation, local food, and beginning farmer programs; reforming crop insurance; and increasing support for public plant breeding and cultivar development. At this time, three NSAC-backed initiatives are gaining momentum and support on Capitol Hill in the form of “marker bills” to be integrated into the 2018 Farm Bill:
- The American Prairies Conservation Act, introduced in October 2017 with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, would strengthen and extend “sodsaver” provisions beyond the current six states to nationwide. http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/american-prairies-conservation-act/.
- The Organic Agriculture Research Act, introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) in May 2017 would increase Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) funding from the current $20 M/year level to $50 M/year. It has since gathered bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/organic-ag-research-act-2017/.
- The Healthy Fields and Farm Economics Act, introduced Jan 10, 2018 by Representatives John Faso (R-NY) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH), will improve efficacy of USDA conservation programs through measurement, evaluation, and reporting of environmental and economic benefits of NRCS conservation programs and practices. http://sustainableagriculture.net/our-work/campaigns/fbcampaign/conservation/healthy-fields-farm-economies-act/.
In addition to Farm Bill and other legislative work, NSAC and its member groups work closely with USDA agencies, providing feedback on efficacy of conservation, organic, research, and other programs, and offering recommendations for improvement. Read on for a success story in this arena!
Conservation Innovation Grant work pays off!
Each year the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) funding for groups seeking to explore cutting edge conservation strategies and how to implement them. In 2010, a group of 11 NSAC member groups, led by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), received a nationwide CIG for a project Integrating Organic and Sustainable Agriculture into NRCS Programs. Recently, the NRCS wrote up our project on their web site as a “success story,” from which the following quote is excerpted:
NCAT worked with ten leading sustainable and organic agriculture organizations to better integrate organic, transitioning to organic, and other sustainable production systems into NRCS programs and make these programs more accessible to sustainable and organic farmers. The recommendations developed by the group resulted in changes to 15 Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) conservation enhancements and the addition of one new CSP enhancement. The team trained farmers and NRSC field staff through ten webinars, five in-person trainings and a published guidebook for NRCS field staff working with organic and transitioning-to-organic farmers and ranchers. This CIG project improves the accessibility and relevance of NRCS programs for organic producers, helping NRCS address the unique needs of organic systems.
VABF is one of the “ten leading sustainable and organic ag organizations.” During 2010-14, I had the honor and pleasure of working with colleagues from the other groups to develop in depth recommendations as well as text for the 47-page guidebook. It was most gratifying to hear, in 2015, that the guidebook had reached NRCS field offices nationwide – and then to see our project featured on the NSAC web site this year.
The growing role of sustainable and organic agriculture in NRCS funded conservation is further exemplified by the 2018 Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) Announcement for Program Funding (APF). NRCS announced a total of $10 million in funding for three priority areas: soil health, organic agriculture, and grazing systems. APF descriptions of the soil health and organic priorities reflect many of our earlier CIG recommendations, and the grazing priority could help realize the great potential for advanced management intensive rotational grazing systems to build soil health, sequester carbon, and restore worn-out pasture and rangeland. For more on the 2018 CIG announcement, see http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/conservation-innovation-grants-2/, and http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/press-comment-organic-agriculture-soil-health-sustainable-grazing-prioritized/.
2018 Organic Research and Extension Initiative
The USDA announced $17.6 million in funding available for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) competitive grants program. The 2018 Request for Applications (RFA) builds on the strengths of the program over recent years, adding a new priority to address policy barriers to expansion of organic production, increasing emphasis on crop-livestock integrated systems, and retaining key priorities in crop cultivar and livestock breed development for organic systems, organic seed production, and farmer engagement in project planning, execution, and evaluation. Over the past several years, NSAC, Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), and several other NSAC members have provided input to help USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) further refine and strengthen the OREI; again we have had a real impact. For more, see http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/orei-organic-grants-fy2018/.
Worried about FSMA enforcement? FDA provides some relief.
2018 marks the first year of compliance under the new Produce Safety Rule (for farms) and Preventive Controls Rule (for “facilities”), developed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under mandates of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This has left many produce farmers, especially those who pack and hold “raw agricultural commodities” on site – concerned and at times confused and frustrated regarding which of these two Rules they must follow. In August, and again recently, FDA took two steps toward giving farmers and regulators more time to sort all this out and reduce stress on producers negotiating the transition into the “FSMA era.” Again, efforts by NSAC and member groups, who have maintained the dialogue with FDA on FSMA issues and their impacts on produce farmers over the past eight years, have played a substantial role in this outcome. For more on this development, see the January 8 blog at http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/fsma-enforcement-discretion/.