A Seat at the Table with Northeast State Agriculture Commissioners

by Tracy Lerman, NESAWG Executive Director

Last week, I joined about two dozen sustainable agriculture stakeholders and NESAWG network participants, as well as agriculture commissioners from ten Northeastern states for the annual NEASDA meeting, the Northeast regional meeting for the National Association of State Department of Agriculture (NASDA). Amidst three beautiful days in Cape Cod, we listened to presentations on critical issues in Northeastern farm and food systems including hemp production, the dairy crisis, climate change, farmland loss, and urban agriculture, toured a cranberry bog and processing facility, and visited the tidal flats of Cape Cod Bay, where beds of Brewster oysters are raised.

NESAWG has been facilitating a group of sustainable agriculture leaders from across our region to raise awareness of food system issues at annual NEASDA meetings for the past two years. These meetings are an opportunity for us and our network participants to connect with leaders at state departments of agriculture and identify opportunities to collaborate with them to achieve shared goals such as farm viability, food security, and vibrant food economies. In addition to the role these agencies can play in leveraging federal funding for their states or supporting state level food systems policies, agriculture secretaries are also powerful advocates on federal policy issues individually and collectively via NASDA’s lobbying presence in Washington, DC.

In recent years, sustainable agriculture stakeholders have occupied an increasing amount of the NEASDA agenda, speaking to the impact of sustainable agriculture leaders’ presence at these meetings and work in their home communities and states. This year’s agenda featured leaders from American Farmland Trust, Land for Good, Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, Mill City Grows, the Carrot Project, and NESAWG. The menu for some of the meals featured local producers, and the cranberry farm we visited was organic. Perhaps the most exciting evidence of our movement’s growing influence is the recent appointment of Maine Farmland Trust’s former president, Amanda Beal as Maine’s agriculture commissioner.

Yet the numbers coming out of the recently released 2017 Census of Agriculture serve as sobering reminders that, despite the farmstead cheese and local oysters commissioners enjoyed at the meeting, farming becomes increasingly challenging with every passing season. According to this analysis of the census, 5% of farms are now responsible for 75% of all farm sales, and the percentage of farms responsible for that amount of sales has been trending down since 2002. The average sales amount for farms in that 5% is $2.76 million. Moreover, the dairy crisis continues to wreak havoc on farm country in the northeast, with 2018 alone seeing a loss of 720 dairy farms in our region, no doubt due to the fact that the price of milk, currently at $17 per hundredweight falls far below the cost of production, at about $22 per hundredweight. And all of these factors are overshadowed by the growing impact of climate change, which already is causing more extreme and less predictable weather and new species of invasive and destructive insect and plant species. Smaller scale farmers, often operating at or below the cost of production, as well as indigeneous, low-income, people of color, and other frontline communities will bear the brunt of this impact.

Sustainable farm and food system practitioners work hard to counter those trends with very small amounts of hard-won farm bill money as well as other state programs (check out our latest collection of stories from around our region) but needless to say, we still have our work cut out for us. How do we get state agriculture leaders to take swift and coordinated action to mitigate the impacts of climate change (and realize this is more than just “#weather”), to aggressively advocates for the most vulnerable in our region, to shift significant resources to those that need it most? Being visible in front of those leaders – and letting them know that we are a large and growing movement that needs their attention – is one piece of the strategy.

And you can be a part of it! If you’d like to learn more about how you can have a seat at the NEASDA table, get in touch.