Value Chains and Climate Change, but no Sea Change - Report Back from NASDA 2019
by Tracy Lerman, NESAWG Executive Director
For the past two years, NESAWG has been facilitating a group of sustainable agriculture stakeholders to have a presence at the National and Northeast Associations of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA and NEASDA) annual meetings, in order to strengthen relationships between sustainable food systems leaders and state agriculture officials as well as raise awareness about our partners’ work throughout our twelve state region. Among other things, NASDA members (who all lead state agriculture departments) take official policy positions that the organization then advocates for in Congress and USDA. Last month, our work with NASDA brought me to their 2019 annual meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I have been attending NASDA and NEASDA meetings for two years now, but this meeting was particularly exciting because of the new commissioners who came from sustainable farm and food systems NGOs. From the Northeast, Amanda Beal, former President of Maine Farmland Trust was now Maine’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry; and Connecticut’s new commissioner, Brian Hurlburt, had previously worked at Wholesome Wave. Also, Colorado’s new commissioner, Kate Greenberg, had most recently been the Western Program Director for National Young Farmers Coalition. These three leaders, along with other ag officials who have been longstanding supporters of sustainable ag work, gave me hope that we might make some significant shifts towards sustainable and just farm and food systems.
Of course, USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue, who just last week told Wisconsin reporters the loss of small farms was inevitable and environmental regulations were to blame, received a standing ovation for his opening remarks, which included numerous reminders of how President Trump is a "friend to agriculture," despite his controversial trade polices that have left many farmers in the lurch. This served as a reminder that the increasingly consolidated, corporate-run, industrial food system is still the backdrop of the incremental changes we’re fighting for.
Still, over the course of the meeting’s four days, I saw more than one example of this incremental change. Of note was the policy statement NASDA unanimously passed regarding climate resiliency. According to their press release, “NASDA acknowledges the necessity of adapting to a changing climate to protect and enhance our nation’s natural resources, while also building a resilient agricultural and food supply chain.” With the recognition that the vast majority of our country’s actions on climate change are too little too late, this statement was historical in that it replaced previous language in NASDA’s policy statements which implied that addressing climate change would be harmful to agricultural viability. The new policy instead recognizes the need to address climate change as a means of protecting agricultural viability and emphasized the need for research, collaboration between governments, and incentive-based climate-smart agricultural practices. (Related: read our endorsement of last month's youth-led climate strike.)
Perhaps the highlight of the meeting for me was the Value Chains tour, led by the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders, which showcased one of New Mexico’s value chains, supply chains that support local farmers and the food system. This particular value chain was part of an initiative called Food LINC (Leveraging Investment for Network Coordination), launched in 2016 to support 13 value chain coordinator positions across the country as they worked to build networks of good food businesses in their communities. Value chain coordinators provide the “soft infrastructure” that leverages critical infrastructure and relationships to build momentum, stability, and fairness in supply chains, offering greater potential impacts than food hubs or farmers markets alone.
The tour brought us to Pueblo Fruits and Vegetables, Inc., an Albuquerque-based distributor moving more than $1 million of locally grown produce, and Townsend Family Farm at Green Acres, an 8-acre organic vegetable farm on the San Filipe Pueblo. Along the way, we met value chain participants, including Helga Garza, Executive Director of Agri-Cultura Network, a cooperative of farmers from urban and rural Rio Grande Communities using sustainable practices; Arturo Sandoval, founder of the Center of Southwest Culture and a longtime social justice activist; and Bryce Townsend, a Pueblo farmer working to create a source of more local, healthy, and sustainable food for the Pueblo people. I was encouraged that the bus for this tour was full and included several agriculture officials from across the political spectrum. At dinner following the tour, I learned about a campaign led in part by Ms. Garza to get Dollar Stores (often the only place of commerce in remote Southwestern communities) to stop selling items made with toxic chemicals and start selling local, fresh produce. It was incredibly humbling to hear how she succeeded in getting Dollar General to commit to selling produce in 450 of its stores, but sobering to realize that, despite this significant victory, dollar stores as grocers, and the economic forces propping them up, are not going away anytime soon.
This tension is the constant state of the sustainable farm and food systems movement to me: hard-won, incremental wins impacting peoples’ lives for the better for sure, but that are ultimately part of an uphill battle against the rapid consolidation of agriculture it seems we’ll never stop fighting. And yet, if a body of fifty state officials with divergent political views can agree on a topic as contentious as climate change (to the benefit of our planet), an unassuming grandmother fighting for her family’s lives can get the ear of the CEO of a giant corporation, and a Pueblo farmer can welcome us onto his ancestor’s land to see his farm and share tea and fry bread, then I can still remain hopeful.
State Agriculture Officials at the 2019 NASDA meeting. Photo Credit: Nevada Department of Agriculture
Farmer Bryce Townsend of Townsend Family Farm at Green Acres in the San Felipe Pueblo. Photo Credit: Paul Towers