Is a More Equitable, Fairer Farm Bill Possible?

While Capitol Hill begins another round of Farm Bill negotiations, grassroots leaders gathered to discuss the people, places, and issues that have too often been shut out of funding.


The clock is already ticking on the 2018 Farm Bill. Hearings on crop insurance, farm credit, nutrition programs, dairy policy, and other titles are being regularly held before the House Agriculture Committee. The witnesses in those hearings include members of trade associations, credit agencies, and energy companies—the stakeholders whose priorities are typically most represented in Farm Bill debates and in the final bill itself.

But this spring, across town from Capitol Hill, American University hosted a 2018 Farm Bill summit, co-sponsored by the Berkeley Food Institute, with a different set of topics on the agenda. Grassroots leaders from across the food system gathered to discuss policy, politics, and potential—and specifically which issues should be included in this next farm bill, with a focus on those that are traditionally left out of the bill.

Attendees and presenters—who included a range of policy experts and community leaders in agricultural communities—discussed a wide range of topics, including rural development, antitrust policy, the experiences of farmworkers, and the obstacles still faced by minority farmers. Much of the discussion centered on funding—or lack thereof—for these and other matters of most interest to small-scale producers and rural communities. Indeed, rural development only received 0.02 percent of Farm Bill funding in 2014.

Instead, the Farm Bill typically prioritizes the needs of large-scale, conventional growers. Those priorities are reflected in whose testimony is heard on the Hill, and in continued expansion of subsidies, crop insurance, and credit programs that benefit the wealthiest and largest farmers.

The goal of this summit, then, according to moderator Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, an assistant professor at American University, was “to broaden the conversation on [the Farm Bill],” to bring new voices into the conversation, and “to inform it, so as to reform it, or even to transform it.”

The tensions between small- and large-scale farmers are only exacerbated by the fact that rural voters are increasingly disillusioned with President Donald Trump, whom they helped to elect, and that many environmental and conservation programs may face dramatic cuts in the President’s coming budget. Since the summit, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, was confirmed, and President Trump released the Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America. But there’s no indication yet that either of these advancements will directly benefit small-scale farmers.

Combating Corporate Consolidation

Among the key priorities the group identified is food industry consolidation. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has addressed this issue through some policy measures, it’s never taken center stage. And it hasn’t been a priority in how the bill’s funds are allocated, a trend that will likely continue this year.

Over the past several decades, consolidation has been the cornerstone of Big Ag. A steady stream of mergers and acquisitions has resulted in more than 80 percent of beef slaughter, 50 percent of chicken processing, and 45 percent of beer production being handled by as few as four large companies.

“There should be a branch of the USDA that talks about competition,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, during her presentation. “That’s not really anyone’s job” right now.

The closest the USDA has gotten to explicitly addressing consolidation is through the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), a program meant to enforce the Packers & Stockyards Act (PSA). The PSA, passed in 1921, aims to uphold competitive markets in the livestock sector, but food industry trade groups lobbied Congress to defund GIPSA for several years.

GIPSA finally managed to introduce some rulemaking in the midnight hours of the Obama administration, but those rules—which would offer protections for chicken farmers who contract with vertically integrated poultry processors—have been repeatedly delayed under the Trump administration.

Lovera wasn’t alone in considering the effects of economic concentration. “Consolidation of the industry has had a huge impact on rural communities,” said Ben Burkett, director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives and the president of the National Family Farm Coalition. There used to be a proliferation of mom-and-pop seed stores, he said, but Monsanto drove them out of business. Continued consolidation in the seed sector has meant that prices have risen and farmers are increasingly tied to one of just three or four companies in the sector.

Support for Female Farmers and Farmers of Color

Another hot topic at the summit was how to use the Farm Bill to offer more support to minority farmers. Dr. Joe Leonard, who headed the USDA’s Office of Civil Rights during the Obama administration, lauded his department for making a “generation’s worth of change” in eight years. But he acknowledged that USDA still has a long way to go in addressing historical and ongoing under-representation of minority farmers in its programs. For instance, he said, people of color on average only apply to around seven USDA programs, when the Department offers over 200.

Rudy Arredondo, president of the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association, agreed that USDA could do more to support farmers of color. “The hoops we have to go through are just incredible,” he said, speaking to the experience of his members, who are mostly small-scale producers and face obstacles including accessing grant programs and land.

Support for minority farmers has appeared in the Farm Bill before. The 2008 Farm Bill included provisions that settled a $1.25 billion class-action lawsuit between USDA and Black farmers. And although the USDA does manage programs tailored to recruiting and assisting woman and minority farmers, including the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program, the 2014 Farm Bill cut that program’s funding in half, to $10 million.

Outside the Farm Bill, progress is happening on this front: Earlier this month, Democrats in California’s state Assembly introduced the Farmer Equity Act, which would give farmers of color more support from the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture.

Improving Farmworker Wages and Working Conditions

With the current climate of fear and anti-immigrant policies as a backdrop, farmworker wages and working conditions were another important point of discussion at the summit.

“It would be a folly not to think about labor issues” alongside other Farm Bill issues, said Jessica Felix-Romero, director of communications for Farmworker Justice. “The Farm Bill can create the [solutions] to address what farmworkers face.”

And yet there is scant mention of farmworkers in the bill. There have been attempts to write provisions that could improve on-farm working conditions, such as the Charter for a Healthy Farm Bill, written by the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy for the 2014 Farm Bill. But the final bill ultimately reduced funding for projects that assist farmworkers.

It’s still too early to say whether the 2018 Farm Bill will better reflect the needs of farmworkers, minority farmers, or communities struggling to stay afloat in a consolidated farm economy. Yet the urgency remains to push forward for a more inclusive bill. “For those of us who work in rural America on the ground, this is not just theoretical,” said Rudy Arredondo.

Leonard echoed that sentiment, making it clear that in his view, the stakes are high for the next Farm Bill to include better policy for all farmers. “If we don’t succeed, the bread basket of the world closes,” he said, “and the world doesn’t succeed.”

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