A Model Network

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Think back to any major policy issue that involved food and farming on a national level over the past 20 years—from conservation stewardship to rural entrepreneurship to community food security to child nutrition reauthorization.  No matter what the issue, one thing is clear: the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition  (NSAC)—or one of its predecessors—likely built a grassroots education and political action campaign around it. 

Even though it officially commenced working under the name NSAC only five years ago, the organization’s history stretches back to the 1980s, when the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (SAC) was established. The federal government estimated that farmland value dropped by nearly 60% in some parts of the Midwest between 1981 and 1985.[1]  Grassroots organizing with Midwestern farmers helped develop sustainable approaches to this economic disaster that leaders in Washington responded to, grounded as they were in America’s rural heartland.  The coalition extended its policy positions to include a range of concerns impacting farmers throughout the country in subsequent years. 

In 2009, the coalition merged with the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, which had worked to shift our nation’s food system toward sound environmental stewardship through federal policy since 1994. The organization became NSAC, and from its headquarters on Capitol Hill, nestled between Congress and the Supreme Court, it has become a powerful force in national policymaking.  “Outside of certain circles, we probably are not the best known organization that works on these issues,” said Managing Director Jeremy Emmi, “but here on the hill we have influence on both sides of the isle and you know we do our best to win on our issues—no matter what.”

The power of NSAC derives not from its perch in the nation’s capitol but from its deep network of partner organizations that reaches into every farming community in this country.  “We work directly at the grassroots level through our member organizations, and so a huge amount of the legislative work that we do is through them,” Emmi explained.  “That’s really the power that we have—member groups in almost every state… and every legislative district.”  There are currently 106 member groups, ranging from small farmers unions to large regional networks like NESAWG.  These member groups are organized into five Issue Communities that focus on specific policy priorities and actions in key areas:

  • Research, Extension, and Education
  • Marketing, Food Systems, and Rural Development
  • Conservation, Energy, and Environment
  • Farming Opportunities and Fair Competition
  • Food System Integrity

Recognizing its members as its base of power is critical to the success of NSAC as a coalition.  “All of the priorities we’re working on, they bubble up from the membership and are informed by the membership,” said Emmi.  NSAC hosts two meetings each year where Issue Communities can sit in the same room and determine their direction and refine their approaches.  Moreover, overarching narratives and new priorities emerge at these gatherings, creating opportunities for action. 

For example, a new Issue Committee—Food System Integrity—grew out of concerns expressed at meetings about the Food Safety Modernization Act being implemented by the FDA, an agency with little experience working with farmers.  Members banded together and organized a group to review the new rules and analyzed their impact on farmers, on-farm food processors and consumers.  They crafted recommendations based on this analysis and then launched a powerful grassroots campaign to get people and organizations to submit comments to the FDA urging them to adapt these proposed changes to the regulations.  Comments poured in from across the country, which are now been considered as the FDA prepares its next round of revised rules for public review and comment.  NSAC stands ready for their imminent release, “The common period will probably be fairly short, and we’ll go immediately into grassroots mode once we have a platform and recommendation,” said Emmi.

Having an army of knowledgeable, active and engaged members across the country ready to delve into a warren of regulation at a moment’s notice speaks to the strength of NSAC’s base.  How do you keep such a dispersed network of members engaged?  Place them at the center of your organization and create value for them.  “We’re very responsive to our members… we have the mindset that we’re working for them,” said Emmi. “The policy staff that we have has a ton experience working on the hill, and we’ve been effective.”

In order to stay effective, NSAC monitors the balance of power in congress and ensures that sustainable agriculture has a voice.  As shifting demographics have granted the Southeast and Southwest more seats in the House of Representatives in recent years, NSAC has rallied more support from groups in these regions.  NSAC will always have strong members and advocates in the northeast, however, and continues to fight on behalf of those policies that impact our region most. 

“Our work on [behalf of] beginning farmers and ranchers probably has an outsized impact because real estate is so expensive in the north east,” said Emmi.  “In the Midwest, maybe you would need $100,000 to buy a parcel of land, and that same parcel of land in the north east may cost a million.”  That’s why NSAC, NESAWG and its fellow members fought so hard to increase direct and guaranteed loan set asides and other programs for new farmers in the latest farm bill. 

By joining northeast voices with those of other sustainable agriculture advocates nationwide, NSAC remains committed to continuing its 20-year legacy as a model network in our field.