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.