Farm Bill organizers regroup in Phoenix

Greetings from smoldering-hot Phoenix. (But it’s a dry heat! Right… somehow when it’s a million degrees, that caveat becomes less convincing.) It’s been a full, exhausting day. One highlight for me was playing fly on the wall during a coming-together of folks who participated in the Farm and Food Policy Project, a Kellogg-funded initiative that brought some of the major players in Farm Bill organizing to the same table in 2005 to develop a unified platform for the 2007 (now 2008) Farm Bill.

This is no small task. Traditionally, the structure of the Farm Bill has pitted interest groups that might otherwise collaborate against each other. The bill is divided into sections (called titles) that fund nutrition programs, conservation programs, commodity programs, research… it’s easy to see how the siloed structure of the bill could lead to some pretty hairy dynamics as groups fight for their piece of the pie. So despite how many organizations are working to improve some aspect of food and agriculture policy, cross-sector NGO organizing has not been the MO as far as the Farm Bill is concerned. The FFPP, as it’s called, was an attempt to change that.

The session that I attended was a chance for those involved in the FFPP to take stock of how it has gone and what lessons could be taken and applied to future coalition work. Members of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, American Farmland Trust, the Northeast Midwest Institute, the Community Food Security Coalition, and the Rural Coalition gave an overview of their involvement and some of the major lessons learned. It was fascinating to hear what they’d taken out of it.

One major theme was the benefit of relationship-building: these groups needed to sit down together and stare each other in the face for a while, and more of that needs to happen if we have any hope of building a powerful, trust-based campaign. Another theme was frustration that so much money is going towards coalition-building but very little specifically targets grassroots organizing, a key element to building a cross-cutting movement for systemic policy change. An additional layer to the movement-building challenge is the challenge of communicating farm policy progress — which by its nature is extremely incremental — to a grassroots that wants something more sweeping. How do we learn to celebrate the small victories when we’re frustrated that change is so slow?

For me, one of the highlights of seeing this session was hearing that the coalition-building process itself was important, even if it didn’t result in the broad policy changes that we might want. There is huge value in a process that helped break down some of the barriers between interest groups and brought conservation, food security/anti-hunger, and family farm organizations to the same table. There are numerous untapped opportunities for broadening the coalition; the public health community and youth organizations like Rooted in Community were two that were mentioned. We’ll need to develop new communications strategies to reach out to and bring in these diverse constituencies. There will be numerous opportunities to do so: food-related policy is being made constantly on local and state levels, this Farm Bill will need to be implemented (and other federal policies passed), and the big Kahuna, the 2012 Farm Bill, will require years of preparatory work.

But the other important lesson was that this Farm Bill has not been a failure. No, it’s not sweeping change; but as one attendee asserted, there are huge gains written in for many communities, and while they might seem small in comparison to, say, the subsidy program, they mean an immense amount to the communities they affect. That includes an estimated $30 million for the Farmers Market Promotion Program, $22 million to help farmers pay the costs of organic certification, $50 million to encourage farmers to rent land at affordable rates to beginning or minority farmers, and $1.1 billion for the Conservation Security Program, which helps farmers implement conservation programs on working lands. The final numbers will be hammered out by the House-Senate conference committee this week.

Going forward, the discussion today made it clear that these groups (and the rest of us who consider ourselves part of this nascent movement) have hefty missions. The most visible leaders are still largely white, and communities and leaders of color need to be at the table from the very beginning. And we’ll need to figure out how to work effectively in coalitions where groups don’t always agree — and sometimes disagree vehemently, as on the farm subsidy issue — to identify areas of common ground. Lots of challenges ahead. We won’t solve it tomorrow, but I’ll be back with more updates.

8 Responsesto “Farm Bill organizers regroup in Phoenix”

  1. My question is this: Why can the behemoth farm bill not be broken up into pieces? Why is it all a one or nothing deal? That just ensures that too much bad and not enough good will happen at every go round. And it also means that the thing only get reconsidered every 5 years, which is just ridiculous.
    Is this issue even raised, or is it just viewed as an impossibility?

  2. Elanor says:

    That’s a great question. It was discussed only briefly yesterday – the speakers mentioned how frustrating it was that everything was rolled into one bill, because it’s much harder to organize a coalition that can actually work. Smaller bills offer far more opportunity for making strategic alliances with groups you might disagree with on other topics. I’ll ask some of the folks here and see if there has been any serious discussion about breaking it apart. I imagine that there’s pushback from the major commodity and anti-hunger groups, who have historically made deals so that urban members of Congress support farm programs in exchange for rural votes for food stamps etc. Does anyone else have insights on this?

  3. Sideshow says:

    It would certainly be an advantageous situation if the farm bill was broken down into individual pieces of legislation, and I hope that gets some actual discussion at the conference.  However, it is precisely the sort of thing the Washington people would tell you “just isn’t possible” and you would be dismissed as too ignorant of political considerations to ever understand just exactly how the farm bill is written and passed.
    Let’s be honest about the FFPP thing.  Who’s ever heard of FFPP?  That should tell you something about their effectiveness.  Further, exactly what issues did any one organization concede defeat on in order to help a fellow organization in FFPP?  None that I’ve heard of.  While I can appreciate the importance of sitting down to build relationships, this isn’t about building a “trust-based campaign”.  It’s about doing the right thing.  However, funders are a real impediment to that- they fund you to work on a certain issue, so nonprofits feel forced to compromise on unrelated issues, even though they know it isn’t the right thing to do.
    A hypothetical:  nonprofit lobbyist X is told by a certain congressman that they have to decide- either they support the farm bill and receive an increase in funding for their preferred issues, or they oppose the farm bill and get nothing.  Lobbyist X is fully aware that there are limited resources- if they agree to go along and get their increased funding, it probably means that another righteous cause, represented by their good friend Lobbyist Y, will get screwed.  But Lobbyist X thinks that their issue is more important than the one championed by Lobbyist Y.  Not only that, Lobbyist X has NOT received a grant to work on the issues championed by Lobbyist Y.  Lobbyist X begins to think that they would actually be shirking their responsibility if they allowed the concerns of Lobbyist Y to influence their decision. So they screw Lobbyist Y, take the deal and keep their mouth shut.  What no one considers- or wants to say- is that there is a third option.  And that is to screw Lobbyist Z, who represents all that is bad and evil.  Not only that, but Lobbyist Z is getting way more money for his causes than X or Y.  But in Washington, it’s “just too hard” to defeat Lobbyist Z, so nobody takes them on.
    And that is where organizing comes in.  How long will it take nonprofits and their funders to understand that simply putting out another report- or building another coalition- is not going to result in fundamental change?  Organizing is the ONLY way to truly implement long-lasting, progressive change.  And organizing means you have to get to the grassroots, and that means have to work on what people care about.
    And that’s why the following statement really gets under my skin: An additional layer to the movement-building challenge is the challenge of communicating farm policy progress — which by its nature is extremely incremental — to a grassroots that wants something more sweeping. How do we learn to celebrate the small victories when we’re frustrated that change is so slow?
    Well, let me tell you something.  That is entirely the wrong question to be asking.  The real question is “How do we make policymakers in Washington understand that incremental change is completely and utterly insufficient?”  Because incremental policy changes in DC do not translate into fundamental change in the real world.  Any truly progressive policy change of the last 100 years was not incremental, that’s for sure.  To paraphrase, “wait means never”.
    Real policy change is the result of fundamental philosophical and ideological shifts- the 1996 farm bill would be one example. And the only way to achieve that change in Washington is to vocally and forcefully oppose anything that does not represent what you want to achieve.
    On the other hand, this line makes me really happy:  “the big Kahuna, the 2012 Farm Bill, will require years of preparatory work.”   Right on.  I certainly hope that during this conference somebody will ask representatives of the Kellogg Foundation just exactly how much money they plan to give away next year to support organizing around the 2012 farm bill.  I hope it is a great deal, but I suspect it is nothing.  But the progressive agriculture and rural community needs to start working on the 2012 Farm Bill today.  Right now.
    Certainly the organizations involved have “hefty missions”.  And the effort put into the 2007 Farm Bill by those organizations and their supporters was truly amazing to see, more than ever before.  By any measure, it was the largest progressive agriculture political campaign ever.  But the most important lesson to be taken out of the 2007 Farm Bill is this:  It wasn’t enough. That’s a failure on the part of all of the organizations and funders involved.  Because those involved in farm bill advocacy essentially said: trust us.  Give us your money, respond to our action alerts, sign our petition and we’ll make sure those things you care about-that sweeping change policy and sweeping language we used to motivate you- that will happen.  And it didn’t, so now we have a responsibility to figure out how to make it happen next time.  We have to come up with new ideas, and radically new ways of influencing the public policy process.  Anything less, and somebody will be writing the same blog comment in 2013.

  4. Adina Levin says:

    It’s a long, hard, slow process to pass a bill in Congress, so bills most often roll a lot of legislation into one big bill. Often when there are individual, smaller proposals, they are tests to assess support for a provision that gets rolled into a big bill. It is easier to move smaller reforms at the state level. If there are worthwhile state-level changes, a good approach is to create a model bill, start in a few likely states, build support for it, and move state by state. However, the big farm subsidy policies are at the federal level, so that change needs to be national. Â

  5. I  have to agree with sideshow. Having worked with lobbyists from various nonprofits, even  when they join together into coalitions, their  influence is minimal at best, and they will  grant huge concessions to gain little victories, basically because they have no choice.

    The Farm  Bill is so big and complex because  the biggest players, and the legislators who receive the most from those players, want it that way. It minimizes true debate and dissent, allowing the larger interests to ensure they get theirs. It’s a purposeful  action designed to ensure that the influence of the grassroots are minimized. Break up the bill and you would shed far more light on  the actions of the meat packers and other  big agribusinesses.

  6. Elanor says:

    Sideshow- Thanks for your comments. I don’t actually think we’re disagreeing. We’re both talking about grassroots organizing as the answer, and that’s what I took from the FFPP conversation– just sitting down at the table together, while important, was not enough. There is not nearly enough money for organizing out there, and that was a message many FFPP participants voiced to funders (some of whom were in the room during this session). And I absolutely hear what you’re saying regarding the need for more sweeping change, and the utter insufficiency of small gains. That said, I don’t think those gains are worthless. If we say that they are, if we declare everything to be a monumental failure, then I worry it will drive the grassroots in exactly the wrong direction: away from the policymaking process. I’d propose that if we celebrate those bright spots, we may actually be able to use them as a vehicle for energizing the grassroots and getting them involved in that longer, bigger campaign for sweeping reform. What I meant by my question was simply: How do we not turn people away from wanting to be involved in the political process because they think it’s totally hopeless?

    I suppose it’s really just a difference in perspective. You seem to be saying that focusing on the insufficiency of small gains can motivate people to push for real reform in 2012. I think that celebrating those gains, but recognizing that we need way more, will give people hope and a desire to be involved in the push for real reform in 2012. In any case, I’m glad that people are talking about grassroots organizing as the missing link. Funders shouldn’t expect that organizations on their own — even if they’re working more closely together than in the past — can lobby their way to real change.

    I’d love to hear from folks “in the grassroots.” What do you think is the most effective way to talk about what happened in the Farm Bill? What makes you want to get involved in building for 2012?

  7. Janet says:

    That’s what I’ve always assumed, Fillippelli the Cook. It’s just too amorphous for any “regular person” to put his or her arms around and blocks meaningful dissent. You can just hear the response from lawmakers: “You oppose the Farm Bill? What do you have against the school lunch program? Don’t you think we should offer food stamps?” and so forth, when what you oppose is the market distortions of some subsidies and big payments to wealthy property owners who’ve never had dirt under their fingernails.

  8. Sideshow says:

    I agree.  Celebrating victories is important, and I think that one has to at least mention defeat to maintain any sort of credibility, be it organizational or individual.
    From a purely political perspective, advocacy organizations are playing a losing hand because of a lack of organizing.  Our biggest champions always- and I mean always- fold on the big issues.  Be it a packer ban, payment limits, a real green payments program- supposedly progressive politicians ALWAYS fold.  Always.  How is it possible that Tom Harkin is the chair of the Senate Ag Committee, yet he can’t even get the amount of money and good legislative language for the ONE THING he stood up on- the Conservation Stewardship Program?  With Harkin as chair of the Ag Committee, we’ll never win on the big structural issues.
    Because every single time opponents of decent ag policy threaten to kill the farm bill, the supporters of decent ag policy give up.  And that means we continue losing on the big issues.  Why doesn’t Tom Harkin smack Collin Peterson around?  How is it possible that a Democratic Senator from North Dakota- Kent Conrad- is allowed to work with a Republican Senator from Georgia- Saxby Chambliss- to screw the Democratic chair of the Ag Committee?  The same Saxby Chambliss that beat Vietnam-triple-amputee-Max Cleland by impugning his patriotism!
    Evidently Harry Reid went and lost his damn mind to be allowing shit like this.  And the progressive ag advocacy committee is letting it happen.  Are any of them attacking Harry Reid?  Are any of them attacking Nancy Pelosi, who backed Peterson the entire time he was screwing family farms?  The Environmental Working Group is, and good for them.  But not many others.  And those who do are painted as “extremists” who don’t understand “politics”, even by some of their so-called allies.
    Does anybody really think that Republican base activists would stand for something like this?  I think not.  Those bastards want Milton Friedman’s texts copied and pasted into the damn Constitution and they won’t stop until it happens.  And they get their crazy right-wing activists elected to Congress!  What a concept!  I mean, they succeeded in making TOM COBURN a US Senator.  Hell, they create the “Club for Growth” and “Taxpayers for Common Sense” expressly to beat the living hell out of any Republican who dares to cross them.
    Of course, I don’t want progressive activists to be mini-Grover Norquists, because he is an evil shit.  But this is politics, and the only way you win is to make those bastards in DC pay a price for doing the wrong thing.
    So I want Tom Harkin to be forever known as Tom “No payment limits” Harkin.  Or Tom “No packer ban” Harkin.  Or Tom “I caved to a Republican from Georgia” Harkin.  The same goes for Collin Peterson, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of their ilk.  Because Tom “he got us some little wins” Harkin isn’t going to motivate Harkin to do better next time.