HOW SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE ADVOCATES CAN TAKE ACTION IN 2017

(reposted with minor adaptations from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's blog)

With a new president and the 115th Congress recently sworn in, farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates around the country have been asking: What does this new Administration and Congress mean for agriculture and food policy? How can we most effectively advocate and continue to make change on the issues that we care about? Here at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), we are dedicated to policy that supports the next generation of farmers and ranchers, invests in rural economic development, fosters cleaner air and water, and increases access to healthy food for everyone.

This policy change cannot take place without robust grassroots support and action. We’ve prepared this roadmap blog post in order to get you ready for a busy year of advocacy and organizing. We hope to help our readers understand the key decisions we anticipate will likely come before Congress and the White House in the next few months, what specifically may be at stake for the sustainable agriculture communities, and what you can do to take action.

Leadership Changes in DC: Get to Know the New Faces
Budget and Appropriations
Farm Bill 2018 Preparations
Potential for Regulatory Roll-backs

Leadership Changes in DC: Get to Know the New Faces

Sonny Perdue was recently named as President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture and is currently being vetted by Congress; Agriculture was the last Cabinet position to have a nominee named. Perdue is a former Georgia Governor and has a long history in agriculture; he has a doctorate in veterinary medicine and has led several agriculture-associated businesses.

Nominating a new Secretary is critically important, however, it is just one piece of the larger transition happening at USDA and in Congress this month. Once a new Secretary of Agriculture is confirmed, the Administration will turn to naming agency heads. The leadership at key agencies (e.g., the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service) will have tremendous leverage over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) direction for the next 4 years.

Key agriculture-related positions in Congress have also shifted. The following congressional committees have the lion’s share of responsibility for making changes to policy and allocating resources when it comes to agriculture and food issues. Several legislators from NESAWG's 12-state region sit on these committees:

If your legislators sit on any of those committees, they will have an outsize role on these issues for the next two years, meaning it’s especially important that they hear from their constituents. Is one of your legislators an appropriator? Check out our appropriations section below. Does one of your legislators sit on an agriculture committee? Check out our farm bill section below.

Additionally, legislators in House or Senate leadership positions can exert significant influence on bills like the farm bill by dictating if and when a bill will come to the floor for debate and whether – or what types – of amendments might be allowed.

  • Two Representatives from the Northeast are in Leadership Positions in the House of Representatives – Rep. Steny Hoyer (D, MD-5), the Democratic Whip, and Rep. Joseph Crowley (D, NY-14), the Democratic Caucus Chairman.
  • Five Senators from the Northeast are in Leadership Positions in the Senate – Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Joe Manchin, III (D-WV), and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

The first step for advocacy in the new year is to determine who your legislators are and find out what roles they may have in food and agriculture policy. If you’re not already familiar with the names of your two Senators and one Representative, you can use Govtrack.us to look this information up for free. Once you know who they are:

  • Visit their official websites to sign up for updates – this is how you can find out about town hall meetings and other opportunities to share your opinion with your legislators.
  • Follow them on Facebook and Twitter to see what they are saying on issues you care about.

Even if your legislator isn’t on an agriculture or appropriations committee, they still need to hear from you! Off-committee legislators can co-sponsor agriculture or food-related bills, they can introduce amendments on the floor, and their votes absolutely matter when big bills like the farm bill come to the full Senate and House for debate. 

Budget and Appropriations

One of the first priorities for the new Congress will be to begin making funding decisions for the next fiscal year (FY). Congress passed a funding extension for FY 2017 back in December, and as a result big funding decisions were pushed into this winter/spring. Because the spending package for FY 2017 is so delayed, at nearly the same time appropriators will also need to begin their work on funding levels for FY 2018; work on FY 2018 appropriations can begin once the new Administration releases its inaugural budget request.

Appropriations may sound like a dry subject, but there is plenty at stake for farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates. Broadly speaking, dozens of programs that directly invest in sustainable agriculture (e.g., on-farm research, hands-on farmer training, incentive programs for land and resource stewardship) depend on appropriators’ support every single year. Important questions NSAC will be looking to answer include:

  • Will Congress opt to preserve – or even increase – funding that spurs rural economic development, creates jobs, and helps farmer-entrepreneurs expand local and regional businesses? Both the House and Senate have indicated support for programs like the Value-Added Producer Grant Program in past fiscal years.
  • Will an Administration brought into office with significant support from farmers invest in programs that help family farmers access resources and receive training and support? Programs like the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers (known as the 2501 program) and the Food Safety Outreach and Training Program (FSOP) directly help farmers access training and technical assistance – from hands-on training to improve their food safety practices to help with business planning and development.
  • Will this Congress recognize the key role that independent farmers and ranchers, working in partnership with researchers, have in innovating and sharing cutting-edge production techniques? The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program does just that and depends on annual appropriations for its funding.
  • Amidst possible pressure to reduce spending, will the incoming Administration and Congress abstain from raiding funding for programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which help farmers, ranchers, and foresters build their soil and adapt to drought and flooding?

The best way to make your voice heard on these key issues is to call your legislators. A phone call takes as much or less time than writing an email, and in most cases it will have a significantly larger impact. You can easily call your legislators in their DC offices by dialing the capitol switchboard and asking for your legislator's office: 202-224-3121. 

As always, appropriations action is likely to begin in early spring and continue through the summer. But remember, you don’t have to wait for a key vote to make a call; you can call anytime to register your support – or opposition – for a program or issue. If your legislator is not on an appropriations committee, you can still call and ask them to pass your request on to the relevant House or Senate committee.

Farm Bill Preparations

While appropriations issues are starting to move right now, there’s a bit more time before major movement starts on our nation’s biggest agriculture and food bill: the farm bill. Technically, Congress isn’t due to start writing a new farm bill until 2018, but legislators will use this year to begin taking stock of constituents’ needs and concerns, as well as to begin staking out positions on big issues.

Members of Congress who sit on the House or Senate Agriculture Committee are likely to begin holding town halls and other formal information-gathering sessions back in their home states/districts this year. The congressional committees may also schedule formal field hearings around the country to seek input from stakeholders.

These events are important opportunities to make your voice heard, whether that’s support for a specific program or a broader issue. It is critical that farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates show up and speak up at these events. As mentioned above, the best ways to find out about these events is to sign up for NSAC Action Alerts and begin subscribing to your legislators’ email lists and/or social media accounts.

Another important piece of farm bill prep work beginning this year will be the development and introduction of “marker bills”. A marker bill is a piece of legislation introduced in Congress that’s not actually intended to pass as a standalone bill, but rather is intended for inclusion in a larger bill (such as the farm bill). Marker bills help legislators signal support for a key issue (e.g., local and regional food systems, beginning farmers, conservation), and also build grassroots support for those issues. Look for opportunities later this year to encourage your legislators to sign on to marker bills that will help ensure the next farm bill invests in a more sustainable food and farm future.

Potential for Regulatory Roll-backs

NSAC will also be watching closely in the first few months of this new Administration and Congress to see if either branch of government will attempt to roll back any rules more recently issued by the previous administration to help farmers and rural communities.

Of most concern to sustainable ag advocates is how progress will move forward (or backward) on the Farmer Fair Practices Rules (FFPR), issued by USDA in December 2016. Despite strong bipartisan support for the rules from a diverse range of farm organizations nationwide, the meatpacking and poultry processing industry is pushing Congress and the Trump Administration to reverse course on these critical farmer protections. On January 21, the Trump Administration issued an order to delay by 60-days all not-yet-implemented rules, including FFPR. While this type of rules delay is fairly typical for a new Administration, NSAC will be watching closely to make sure the delay is not the first step toward a stopping or dismantling of important rules and regulations.

On the congressional side, the primary tool that would be used to try to reverse course on new rules is through the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA provides an expedited process for Congress and the President to rescind rules recently published by the previous administration.

Getting Involved

Expressing support for FFPR is a great opportunity for advocates and farmers to get involved in the new Administration and make their voices heard: any and all members of Congress should hear from constituents now that the federal government needs to protect American farmers and keep, not roll back, FFPR.

As we move forward, NSAC will provide the tools and resources necessary to help farmer- and citizen-advocates speak up on all the sustainable agriculture issues that matter to them. Stay tuned to our website for analysis, policy updates, and action opportunities as they become available.