7 Ways Northeast agriculture can benefit from a Green New Deal

By Nicole Sugerman, NESAWG Policy Manager

The Green New Deal (GND) resolution was released last week, and includes agriculture in its approach to mitigating climate change. The resolution calls on policymakers to “work collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector” through supporting “family farming”; “investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health”; and “building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.” It is intentionally written as a scaffolding for developing more specific legislation, and holds potential for our particular agricultural strengths and needs here in the Northeast. Here are some ideas to get us started:

1. Learn from the mistakes, and stop romanticizing, the original New Deal.

This one is not specific to the Northeast, but it’s important in framing the other policies to emerge from the GND. While the original New Deal set a lot of beneficial social policy which has served as a cornerstone of our social safety net ever since, the deal also codified many discriminatory practices which have caused continued harm to Black communities and other communities of color. Within agricultural policy alone, the New Deal:

  • Originated the still-used county committee structure for FSA loans, which were and continue to be mostly comprised of White farmers, and which led to decades of discriminatory lending practices against Black farmers and other farmers of color.
  • Included farmer support legislation, which offered farmers payments to leave land fallow, which resulted in huge numbers of African American sharecroppers losing their farmland.
  • Passed The Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 to establish minimum wage and overtime requirements, but completely excluded both farm workers and domestic workers from these labor protections-- fields not coincidentally populated mostly by people of color. These labor exclusions continue to foster mistreatment of workers in these fields to the current day.

These are just two examples but the racism inherent in the package was far broader. While the Green New Deal’s framers seek favorable comparisons between two sweeping public works programs, we must not let nostalgia get in the way of seeing the original New Deal as a cautionary tale on the discriminatory potential of social policy if it does not specifically center marginalized communities. As the Climate Justice Alliance explains, GND policy proposals must center and take leadership from the frontline communities most affected by climate change’s effects, who have already been innovating climate solutions in their local communities. The GND mentions these communities specifically, but we will need to see frontline leadership in any policy spurred by the resolution.

2. The Northeast already leads in soil health. Let’s replicate soil policy that works.

The Green New Deal recognizes soil health as a key to agricultural climate adaptation and mitigation. In the northeast as well as nationwide, farmers and local communities have long led the way in prioritizing soil building. Within the Northeast region, Maryland and Vermont have passed state laws that incentivize soil health, and Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts have proposed bills that have not yet passed.

The Green New Deal could catalyze the spread of these state-level laws, as well as linking and promoting local agricultural initiatives like the ones found in MD, ME, NH, PA, VT, (and more!) that promote soil regeneration and health as tools for carbon sequestration as well as means toward strong crops and healthy ecosystems.  

3. Organics show promise in building healthy soils. It’s time to make organic the default.

The Northeast is one of the country’s top regions for organic production. New York has the fourth highest organic acreage of all 50 states, and Vermont sits at #10. Pennsylvania ranks #2 for organic sales, second only to California. Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine all experienced between 30 and 100% increases in organic sales between 2015 and 2016.  

While climate change mitigation has not been definitively linked to organic practices, meta-analyses suggest that organic agriculture has could mitigate greenhouse gas release, and organic cropping systems often sequester more carbon in the soil than do conventional systems in long-term trials. Organic practices vary substantially and not all are climate adaptive or regenerative, but research also suggests that not using synthetic nitrogen stabilizes soil-held carbon and reduces nitrogen dioxide. Let’s help incentivize and spread organic agriculture as part of the Green New Deal’s approach.

4. Urban agriculture can help lead the way.

With a number of dense metropolitan areas- and, in some areas, much urban vacancy due to post-industrial disinvestment and white flight- the Northeast holds many examples of innovative, community based urban agriculture. Urban agriculture was not mentioned specifically in the GND’s text, but has the potential to contribute to the resolution’s agricultural goals both through soil-building practices and by contributing to sustainable local food systems. The 2018 Farm Bill included funding for urban agriculture research for the first time, but it will be up to us to hold the government accountable in funding urban agriculture solutions led by frontline communities and prioritizing community benefit. Let’s continue to push resources toward community-led farms and gardens in cities as a tool toward resilient, climate-adaptive food systems.   

5. Small, diversified farms have long been a linchpin of the Northeast food system. We have tools, knowledge, and skills to bring this to other communities and regions.

Modern Farmer notes that “carbon-friendly farming is, by nature, more labor intensive. It looks. . . like a patchwork of small, diverse farms where a tightly managed integration of livestock, perennial forages and tree crops is maintained.” Farms in the Northeast average 153 acres, which is much smaller than the national average of 441 acres. With our strong focus on direct marketing and specialty crop production, Northeast agriculture tends to be diverse as well.   

Crop diversification enhances soil organic carbon, especially when perennial and deep-rooted crops are added to the rotation, and carbon sequestered in this way may exist in a more stable form than that accrued by other carbon-friendly practices, like no-till. Diversified farms require more labor, which synergizes with the GND's proposed jobs guarantee. As explained above, farmworkers were left out of Roosevelt’s New Deal’s labor regulations, and we must do better this time to ensure that our farm jobs are good jobs that pay a living wage and model respect. The small, diversified farms that are needed for climate-adaptive agriculture have the potential to get us there.

6. Accessible local food systems are already our norm. Let’s go deeper.

The Northeast region leads the nation in direct farmer-to-consumer sales. Much of our farmland is located close to major metropolitan areas throughout the region, and New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania rank in the top 10 states nationwide for numbers of in-state farmers markets. Over 12% of Northeast farms sell directly to consumers, and that percentage is close to 20% in most New England states.

The GND’s third goal for agriculture, “building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food”, plays to our strengths in working toward local, sustainable food systems. To realize this goal, the federal government will need to continue to support and grow its existing programs (like SNAP, WIC FMNP, LAMP, FINI, etc.) that give consumers the ability to purchase local, sustainably produced foods while maintaining financial viability for both farmers and farmworkers. Moreover, any policy proposals generated from the GND will need to, again, center solutions generated by communities most affected by hunger and lack of access to food. The GND can help catalyze the more structural solutions we need- universal healthcare, a livable wage, and more- to take our local food systems to the next level.

7. Dairy and poultry need a just transition.

The Northeast leads in both of these categories, and both have complex relationships to climate change. While Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOS) contribute to climate change with nutrient runoff and extreme density, and livestock has been found to contribute to methane emissions, there is also a longstanding ecological place for poultry and dairy within diverse agricultural systems- and our regional industries need our support. Many of the practices within our region’s dairy and poultry industry are sustainable and can point the way for a better food system. Programs to benefit and reward those already using sustainable practices, and to transition those who are not, are required in our region and beyond.

Have more examples of climate-friendly practices in the Northeast? Drop me a line

Photos by Dean Morley, Dimitri Rodriguez