Sustainable Agriculture and Food System Funders (SAFSF) is the leading national network for philanthropic grantmakers and mission-based investors working in support of just and sustainable food and agriculture systems. Our members include community and corporate foundations, private foundations, health conversion foundations, investment organizations, individual donors and investors, and more. SAFSF members make investments at local, regional, state, Tribal, national, and international levels to support activities and strategies related to justice, farms and farming systems, environmental sustainability, markets, health, agricultural products, and much more within the food system.
The farm bill, which is set to be reauthorized in 2023, is the most significant piece of legislation Congress enacts (roughly every 5 years) that has a direct impact on farming livelihoods, how food is produced, what kinds of foods are grown, and how economically distressed families eat. The 2018 Farm Bill includes twelve titles that cover commodity crops support, conservation of natural resources, nutrition, access to credit, rural communities, research and education, forestry, energy, horticulture, crop insurance, and beginning and historically disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, among other things. The breadth and scope of the farm bill likely touches more American lives than any other legislation.
We believe federal policy should support just and sustainable agriculture, food and fiber systems, in which it is possible for all people to equitably participate in and benefit from these economies. The following principles must be applied to the farm bill in order to make progress toward this goal.
PRINCIPLE 1: Close the racial and economic gaps created by provisions that subsidize farm consolidation and favor production methods that create barriers and reduce opportunities for operators of small and medium scale farms and historically disadvantaged farmers.
Government subsidies under the commodity (Title I) and crop insurance programs (Title XI) enshrined in the farm bill favor certain production systems and practices, farmers, and scales of operation. Under the guise of supporting family farmers and rural communities, these direct payments and subsidies benefit the largest and wealthiest farmers rather than those operating at family or community scale. Loopholes that have been written into the programs make it easy for the largest and wealthiest farmers to rake in large amounts of government payments that they bid into land values and cash rents. This in turn fuels economic inequity, driving up land prices, and pushing small and mid-sized operators (who are much less resourced), off the land, or keeping new farmers from entering. Over the long view, approximately 25 percent of commodity and crop insurance subsidies have flown to the largest one percent of all farms1. In addition, scrutiny of the recent trade aid subsidy program revealed that more than 99 percent of those subsidies flowed to white farmers2. The next farm bill should level that playing field.
Additionally, active discrimination towards socially disadvantaged farmers3 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has limited their access to credit and government resources and continues to lead to significant loss of land and economic opportunity4. While the Administration has committed to pursuing equity within USDA, the final remedies must be addressed in the statute. As such, the federal farm bill must address inequities created across all the provisions to move towards a more equitable future.
PRINCIPLE 2: Protect our rich agricultural lands and our long-term environmental health through robust conservation programs that support crop, livestock, and natural diversity, as well as conservation-based farming systems, as valuable tools to reduce agricultural risk, support production of nutrient-dense food, sustainable fibers and address water quality, biodiversity and climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Recent farm bills have made significant cuts to key conservation program funding5, at a time when farmers are facing increasing challenges as a result of climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act rightly adds new funding for climate smart conservation, through existing farm bill conservation programs, that results in a significant net gain over previous cuts. Rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy downpours are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity in the United States. Moreover, expected increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality, and changes in extreme events in the United States and abroad threaten rural livelihoods, sustainable food security, and price stability. Therefore, it is critical that the farm bill position climate change as an actual threat and prioritize and strengthen investments in programs and practices that have measurable climate and conservation benefits.
PRINCIPLE 3: Repair and rebuild thriving rural communities damaged by farm bill provisions that hasten depopulation and loss of economic opportunity through consolidation and concentration in the agricultural sector.
Rural communities continue to struggle with population loss. Sixty six percent of the nation’s non-metro counties have lost population over the past decade. For the first time ever recorded, non-metro counties saw an overall population loss, meaning rural communities had more deaths than births, and more people moved out than moved in6.
In addition to population loss, non-metro counties face higher rates of poverty than metro counties. Moreover, extreme poverty, meaning the county’s poverty rate is 40 percent or greater, is a uniquely rural problem7.
The farm bill is often touted as critical legislation for strengthening rural America and family farmers, yet rural community demographic data suggests otherwise. Rural depopulation, underemployment, health issues, aging infrastructure and shifting to a more regional mindset, are some of the key issues that influenced the Rural Development title of the 2018 Farm Bill8. However, the Rural Development title receives minimal funding (part of the one percent “other” category) compared to other titles that actually contribute to some of the negative challenges facing rural America.
PRINCIPLE 4: Build resilient local and regional food and fiber systems that safeguard the right of every human being to eat and be nourished regardless of economic circumstances.
The coronavirus pandemic made it impossible for anyone in America to ignore the problems with our country’s food system. The problems were not new, but the ripple effects of the pandemic exacerbated existing problems to the point where they created serious threats to the ability of everyday people to feed themselves and their families.
The importance of local food and regional food systems was significantly underscored by the pandemic.
Co-ops, farmers markets and direct to consumer models, such as Consumer Supported Agriculture Systems (CSAs), along with regionally sourced farm-to-families emergency food boxes, became the most steady and reliable sources of food when grocery store shelves were empty due to the breakdown of national and global food supply chains.
Congress and USDA have significantly boosted resources in the short-term for existing and new provisions to support local and regional food system infrastructure and markets. Once these short-term additional resources expire, there will still be a significant funding gap while the challenges that require ongoing resources will remain. The farm bill should double down on this and focus on how it can best support building a resilient local and regional food system that prioritizes initiatives designed to guarantee food sovereignty, address consolidation, ensure farmworker health, and more fully recognize the importance and power of local and regional food systems in meeting the hunger and nutritional needs of communities across the country.
Questions? Email Our Policy Team
Senior Director, Public Policy
Public Policy Associate