Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Farm Bill moves forward: What does it mean?

aliciaIt’s quite a time to be here in our nation’s capital! Sure, President Obama just delivered the State of the Union, but for our country’s family farmers the real news is the Farm Bill.

Right in the middle of meetings with our close partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and National Family Farm Coalition, the Congressional “conferees” for the Farm Bill released the report on a final version of the bill, which has now been passed by the House in a 251-166 vote. Our dedicated allies, already exhausted from organizing their winter meetings spent hours poring over the pages of the report to give us the bottom line. So here’s what we know:

There is a lot of good in this bill—dozens of essential, innovative programs that have waited on the sidelines for years will at long last receive renewed funding. These programs invest in the next generation of farmers, grow local and regional food systems, support organic agriculture, and deepen economic opportunity in rural communities. Disaster and credit programs are restored in a time of increased natural disasters and volatile weather patterns. And essential measures to build real justice into our food system were protected, like the long-fought-over GIPSA rule to protect family farmers and ranchers from corporate abuse and Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) to offer real transparency and choice to eaters.

That said, there are critical failures and some huge disappointments too. For the first time ever, both the House and Senate had agreed to set limitations on the commodity payments and subsidies to crop insurance that the largest farms could receive. It signified a new shift among lawmakers to truly level the playing field. But inexplicably, these limits were cut from the bill that came out of the conference committee—a move that benefits the wealthiest farms on the taxpayers’ dime. At the same time, the bill cuts billions of dollars from the suite of conservation programs that are critical to helping farmers address weather-related challenges and protect natural resources in the face of climate change. On the eater side of the Farm Bill’s agenda, it substantially reduces benefits SNAP (food stamp) participants—the most vulnerable of Americans.

That’s a tough pill to swallow in a time of economic challenge and growing income inequality between the richest and poorest in our country. But perhaps the worst part of it is not what happened, but how it happened—through an atrocious, back-door meeting between just four lawmakers, a process that lacked any transparency or accountability. As a result, just four people got to erase historic reforms that were backed by a bipartisan majority in Congress.

Yes, we need our farm policy to move forward. Family farmers and ranchers, and millions of Americans who depend on essential Farm Bill programs, cannot and should not wait any longer. But we deserve more. The bill fails to make much-needed reforms that will level the playing field and build a truly resilient and sustainable farm and food system. And no one should accept the undemocratic last-minute process that produced the bill before us.

The Senate will be voting on the bill as early as this week and it will likely pass. The work that remains for all of us is to keep pushing for the reforms needed in our food and farm system, to make hay over the affronts and to celebrate the victories. Onward, friends! We’ll keep you posted on upcoming opportunities to fight for a fair and resilient food and farm system.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Introducing Farm Aid's new co-op Emily Quinlan

EmilyI grew up in Walpole, Massachusetts, which is a small suburban town about thirty minutes southeast of Boston.Although I was always outside as a kid, running around playgrounds and walking in the tiny patches of "woods" in Walpole, the extent of my farm exposure is from when my parents would take my brothers and me pumpkin picking at a small farm a few towns over. After graduating high school, I moved to Boston to attend Northeastern University.

Although I have many interests, I have no one passion or calling that I feel I must take part in in order to be satisfied career-wise. In high school, I was involved in sports and my school's annual film festival as a movie director. I took as many art classes as I could, but there was no one academic subject that stood out to me as a future career.

When I began applying to colleges, I let my father talk me into being a pharmacy major. I quickly decided pharmacy was too structured and predictable for me and switched my major to art. This was also not a good fit for me because something that was once relaxing and enjoyable for me became forced. I reflected on all of the courses I had taken and realized writing was the one that stood out as a natural fit. I decided to pursue a journalism major and have loved it ever since .I enjoy speaking to different people and researching a broad range of topics.

When it came time for me to choose my co-op, I again put trust in what interested me about my classes: journalism and public relations. Paired with my interests in health, nutrition, painting, celebrities, dogs and entertainment, my advisor suggested I apply to work at Farm Aid. Farm Aid incorporated many of my interests and that former co-ops came back to Northeastern with glowing reviews of their experience there!

While my knowledge of healthy eating is far greater than most of my friends, after just a few days at Farm Aid, I'm realizing I know next to nothing about the intricacies of the food system. Although some things about the mass production of our food are shocking and horrifying, I am excited to continue learning how to get fresh food that is good and good for you. I am especially interested in how much guidance and how many resources Farm Aid provides individual farmers. Because my father is a small business owner, I am proud to support entrepreneurs like family farmers and I am eager for them to succeed.

I look forward to the next six months here at Farm Aid. I hope to walk away with greater knowledge on the food and farming system in America, and to gain career and life experience!

Friday, January 10, 2014

What you need to know about food and farms this week

jenHello and happy new year! Welcome back from the holidays. Much has happened over the past couple weeks, including many bits of news that we can celebrate as proof that we are indeed gaining wins in the movement to change our food system!

Over the past few months, we’ve asked you to comment on the proposed FDA rules around food safety that would harm family farmers, local and regional food systems, and sustainable farm practices. The FDA heard our voices and they have announced that they will go back to the drawing board! New rules will be proposed in the first half of 2014, with a new public comment period. This is as a direct result of farmers and eaters making their concerns heard—democracy in action!

There are also signs that the big guys in industrial agriculture and food continue to hear, and heed, calls for change. Here are a few examples from this past week:

Smithfield, the world’s largest pork buyer, has asked its producers to stop using gestation crates for pregnant sows by 2022. The change is requested, not required, but the company says that contract extensions "will be less likely" for farmers who keep gestation crates.

McDonald’s, which purchases 1 billion pounds of beef each year, announced a commitment to sustainable beef by 2016. McDonald's will begin purchasing "verified sustainable beef" during 2016 following a two-year ramp up during which it will "listen, learn, and collaborate with stakeholders from farm to the front counter to develop sustainable beef solutions."

General Mills announced that Cheerios will be marketed as GMO free, but what does it mean? The product, made mostly of oats, is already nearly non-GMO because there are no genetically altered oats (yet). The only changes to be made will be sourcing non-GMO products for the little sugar and soy added to the recipe. And the company has said they won’t go through the process of having the product certified by a third party. They also will only be going non-GMO for original Cheerios, not for their flavored Cheerio varieties. So, is this a publicity ploy or does it signify a commitment by General Mills to continue down the non-GMO road for the rest of its products? Only time will tell, but if other manufacturers start following suit, we may be in for some major change!

Yesterday Maine became the second state to pass a law requiring labeling of food products containing genetically engineered ingredients. Maine joins Connecticut, but both states’ laws require other states to also pass their own bills before the provision goes into effect. This is a protective measure to ensure that no state has to stand alone in any battle with the pro-GE lobby, which has proven to have very deep pockets. With the Vermont legislature debating a similar measure right now, and New Hampshire taking one up later this year, New England is a hotspot for GE labeling progress!

A new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that one way to solve the issue of what to do with immense mountains of chicken waste that are produced by our industrial poultry production system might be to make the poultry contractors responsible for it. The theory goes that “if the companies owned the manure, they would have strong incentives to build processing plants to convert it to fertilizer, electricity, or other productive uses.” That certainly makes better sense to us than expecting contract growers to take on all the risk of producing poultry in this way. They simply can’t afford it – a 2001 study found that 71 percent of growers whose sole source of income was chicken farming were living below the poverty line!

Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says the Farm Bill is getting close to completion. But other reports say the new stumbling block (now that the House and Senate have compromised on cuts to the food stamp program) is dairy policy. The debate now centers on a program that limits dairy supplies to help bolster the price of milk paid to farmers.

Meanwhile, ranchers in South Dakota who have up to hundreds of thousands of dollars of losses are still in limbo without a Farm Bill that reinstates disaster programs for livestock producers.