Ready, set, go change the food system, part 2: More USDA action items

On Friday we published the first half of a list of specific actions the new USDA could undertake in its first six months that could significantly change the food system. After polling a cross-section of groups and individuals, we cherry-picked from their answers to come up with 10 big-picture directives supported by 30 completely doable legislative/administrative steps.

We will periodically revisit this list of short-term, concrete proposals over the next six months to keep a running scorecard of just how much progress is being made at the government level. Because as important as it is for eaters to "vote with your forks," some farmers (and others) may need government help, too — even if it's just help in the form of getting the government off their backs by making regulations scale-appropriate, or leveling the planting field so that small farmers can compete fairly against production growers without having to get big or get out.

Again: The organizations consulted for this project have not endorsed this list, and people quoted herein are not responsible for any of the post's content other than what they themselves say. We regret that we were not able to reach out to the full breadth of groups and individuals active on farm and food policy, but we hope that this list can serve as a starting point for a larger conversation that will draw in those areas we missed.

A printable version of the entire list, with both bulleted action items and explanation, can be downloaded here as a PDF.

And now, here's the big-picture view of Part Two, with specific action items for the USDA's first six months following after the jump:

6. Usher in a new era of conservation.
7. Make a firm investment in non-biotech agricultural research – and make sure it stays in the public domain.
8. Help more people become farmers, and help the ones who've made that difficult choice succeed.
9. Level the pasture for small farmers and ranchers.
10. Realize where the market has failed and help us weather it.

6. Usher in a new era of conservation.

The Bush Administration has left us with smoldering wreckage for environmental regulations; agricultural lands have not escaped the flames. Technically, farmers who receive farm subsidies are prohibited from draining wetlands on their land and required to control erosion under Swampbuster and Sodbuster provisions of the Farm Bill. But guess what? That hasn’t been enforced. “Despite the fact that we’ve had Sodbuster in place for over 20 years now, nearly one-third of the cropland in the U.S. continues to erode at unsustainable rates,” says Britt Lundgren of the Environmental Defense Fund. As a start, USDA should make a public commitment to ramp up enforcement of Sodbuster and Swampbuster programs. It should also urge states to implement the Farm Bill Sodsaver provision to deny crop insurance and disaster payments to producers who plow up native grasslands, or use rulemaking or administrative processes to achieve the same effect if states choose not to opt in.

President Obama has been clear on his desire to make existing government programs more streamlined and cost-effective, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps fund conservation practices on farms, is one area where limits are badly needed. This great program veered off course when USDA priorities shifted from funding the most cost-effective applications to instead funding applicants with the greatest pollution potential.Research suggests that a big share of funds are now going to industrial livestock operations. Is EQIP subsidizing the expansion of giant factory farms? Give us the data so we can know for sure. Instruct the Natural Resources Conservation Service to analyze and make public the data on use of EQIP by large, industrial livestock operations – both how much they receive and the practices the contracts fund – and help distribute those program funds more widely and fairly by directing states to implement a $150,000 cap on EQIP contracts.

7. Make a firm investment in non-biotech agricultural research – and make sure it stays in the public domain.

Many in the good-food community wonder what our system would look like if we’d invested as much money in, say, traditional plant breeding and soil-building research and education as we have in genetic engineering. Show us a glimpse, please, by scaling up research programs for organic and other sustainable farming methods. Encourage the President to include in his 2010 budget proposal (due out this spring) annual funding of $250,000 for the National Agricultural Library’s Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, which will lead the dissemination of research on sustainable farming techniques.

Despite what Pat Roberts may think of "non-production" farmers, there are a lot of hard-working organic farmers and grateful organic eaters who deserve to see organic get its fair share of USDA funding. You can help make this a reality by redirecting funding within the Agricultural Research Service so that organic gets the same share of funding as it enjoys of the food market. Right now, that's about 4%, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s more than double the current expenditures.

8. Help more people become farmers, and help the ones who've made that difficult choice succeed.

Anyone who’s seen the awesome trailer for The Greenhorns knows, there are a lot of young people who want to get into farming. We'd better hope so, since the average U.S. farmer is now over 50 and many are looking to retire. You can support beginning farmers and ranchers by protecting the money allocated for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which was reauthorized in the 2008 Farm Bill and received mandatory funding for the first time ever. “Guarding against budgetary or appropriations measures that try to cut this mandatory funding will be key to successful implementation and usage of the program,” says Adam Warthesen of the Land Stewardship Project, which runs an invaluable training program for new farmers out of its Minnesota offices.

We’re also thrilled to see Secretary Vilsack’s straight-out-of-the-gate commitment to reversing our country’s sad history of neglect of minority and disadvantaged farmers. You can take it one step further by increasing funding for the Risk Management Agency's Community Outreach program, which has funded hundreds of programs to help socially disadvantaged farmers become more economically viable. Recently their budget was cut by more than half. USDA should find another $5 million annually to bring this program up to its 2007 levels.

Beyond the USDA, the Administration should quickly and decisively signal that major health care reform remains a top priority in 2009. The self-employed and small businesses, including farmers and rural entrepreneurs, desperately need access to affordable health insurance. No other action would have as positive and wide sweeping impact on family farm agriculture and rural economic vitality.

9. Level the pasture for small farmers and ranchers.

It’s no secret that we’ve lost a whole lot of small and mid-sized farms and ranches in the past few decades, and it’s not all because of market forces. Livestock markets are not competitive; they are biased against smaller and independent producers and towards giant, corporate-owned or -controlled operations. You have the authority to change this; start the rulemaking process under the Packers and Stockyards Act to end meat companies’ use of captive supplies of animals to manipulate livestock prices in their favor. You can also move quickly to implement contract reform measures included in the Farm Bill that will restrict some of the most abusive practices used in contract arrangements between producers and meat companies, and you should establish criteria for undue preference (preferably following the advice of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition). Yeah, that might sound wonky and confusing to everyone else, but we know you understand, USDA. Check out their recs here.

While we’re on the topic of meat, implement the provisions from the Farm Bill that allow meat from state-inspected plants to cross state lines. This was an important piece of the Farm Bill for which sustainable agriculture groups and small farmers across the country have been advocating for years — but implementation has stalled. It would start to address the many challenges they face in getting their products to consumers now that the slaughterhouse industry has consolidated into a few giant plants per state. That consolidation hasn't served food safety, worker safety, or the farmers well at all. So long term, the USDA should support states that put small, mobile abattoirs on the road, by making inspectors available for them.

A list of recommendations on “the big guys” wouldn’t be complete without a mention of everyone’s favorite lightning rod: the subsidy program. Happily, Vilsack last Monday announced he was extending the comment period for the 2008 Farm Bill Farm Program Payment Limitation and Payment Eligibility rulemaking process. He said he was "particularly interested in suggestions that would help the Department target payments to farmers who really need them and ensure that payments are not being provided to ineligible parties for future crop years." That's great news. The agency could save a lot of money and make the system more fair by ensuring that only active farmers and landlords who rent to active farmers can receive payments. You can also ask for and support the reintroduction and adoption of Senators Dorgan and Grassley’s legislation to close payment loopholes and establish a subsidy cap of $250,000 per farm. Especially in this time of massive budget deficits, is that too much to expect? As you can see, we have plenty of ideas for better ways that money can be spent.

10. Realize where the market has failed and help us weather it.

If there’s one thing we learned from the Wall Street collapse, it’s that the market does not always work as advertised. For poor consumers, food markets can often present a big middle finger: If you can’t pay, you don’t eat. Right now, more people than ever fall into that category. USDA should throw its weight behind extra funding in the economic stimulus package for low-income food and nutrition programs, including SNAP; the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food assistance program; and our nation’s many strapped food banks. WIC got the shaft in the Farm Bill; you can score a two-for-one by providing enough money for WIC in the stimulus — $1 billion by some groups’ estimates – so that, combined with the Farm Bill money, the program will be fully funded and we won’t have to tap other longer-term programs (conservation, renewable energy, beginning farmers, etc.) to feed the hungry now.

Volatile markets are also spelling disaster for farmers across the country, who, last time we checked, can’t individually control the weather or the production decisions of millions of other farmers across the globe. In other words, agricultural markets don’t work the way they’re supposed to: unlike an SUV manufacturing plant, farmers can’t just turn off the cow if there’s a milk glut or harvest early if it looks like a flood is on its way. So they’re sitting and watching as once-high commodity prices tank, input costs rise, and credit becomes scarcer than a weed in a Roundup Ready soybean field. (Oh, wait… just kidding! It’s much scarcer than that.) You can help by making credit and loans more easy to come by. Use the economic stimulus package to increase funding for the direct and guaranteed loan programs, the latter of which makes credit available to family farmers and ranchers who are unable to obtain commercial credit at reasonable rates.

The dairy situation is particularly dire – several producers in California have committed suicide in recent months as debt mounts and prices drop — so you must intervene to stabilize the milk price while a longer-term plan is worked out. Some groups propose that you buy surplus milk and funnel it to nutrition programs. We’ll let you work out the specifics, but something needs to be done if we want to have a domestic dairy industry in 10 years.

Lastly, you could get a lot of bang for your buck by helping to fund and launch a Farm for America program (call it the Peas Corps!) as part of a larger Green Jobs program, underwriting public-service oriented positions in urban and rural agriculture that supply food banks, low-income neighborhoods, and senior centers with fresh produce.

We would like to thank the following groups and people for their recommendations and feedback: Beyond Pesticides, Center for Rural Affairs, Community Food Security Coalition, Congressional Hunger Center, Environmental Defense Fund, Food & Water Watch, Food Crisis Working Group, Food Democracy Now!, Food First, Greenhorns.net, Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, Land Stewardship Project, Bill Marler, National Farm to School Network, National Farmers Union, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Organic Farming Research Foundation, Michael Pollan, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and several groups who wished to remain anonymous.

Finally, here's the master list of the items we optimistically hope to check off as we follow the USDA's progress in the next six months:

1. Make the USDA once again the "people's department."

  • Fill positions at the USDA with aggressive, capable, and hard-working reformers who will serve the interest of citizens before corporations.

2. Support diversified and decentralized local and regional food systems.

  • Increase funding for the Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program in the economic stimulus package
  • Increase funding for the the Value-Added Producers Grants Program in the economic stimulus package
  • Boost funding for Section 122 of the Child Nutrition Act, which provides startup money for farm to cafeteria projects.

3. Start thinking of school food programs as an opportunity to invest in healthy kids, not as a garbage disposal for cheap commodities.

  • In the Child Nutrition Act, support higher reimbursement rates for child nutrition programs; adjust the rate on a semiannual basis to better reflect food costs
  • Commit to introducing an administration bill outlining USDA spending priorities for child nutrition programs.)

4. Give us clear information about where our food comes from and how it was produced.

  • Revise the final Country of Origin Labeling rule to close loopholes on processed products and meat
  • Reject the meat industry's petition to allow for carcass irradiation that will not be labeled on consumer meat products
  • Immediately reinstate the Agricultural Chemical Usage Survey and associated annual reports
  • Implement the new studies recommended in the 2008 Farm Bill to measure farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides and investigate other pesticide safety issues

5. Start protecting us from food gone wrong, and GE crops gone wild.

  • Fill chronic vacancies at the Food Safety Inspection Service
  • Study how the patchwork of responsibility shared by the FDA and the USDA could be better streamlined, staffed, and funded
  • Scrap and re-write the Bush Administration’s proposed regulation of genetically engineered organisms under the Plant Protection Act (PPA)
  • Revise the PPA regulations to ban the cultivation of pharmaceutical-producing crops outdoors

6. Usher in a new era of conservation.

  • Make a public commitment to ramp up enforcement of Sodbuster and Swampbuster programs
  • Urge states to implement the Farm Bill Sodsaver provision to deny crop insurance and disaster payments to producers who plow up native grasslands
  • Instruct the Natural Resources Conservation Service to analyze and make public the data on use of EQIP by large, industrial livestock operations
  • Direct states to implement a $150,000 cap on EQIP contracts
  • Encourage the President to include in his 2010 budget proposal annual funding of $250,000 for the National Agricultural Library’s Alternative Farming Systems Information Center

7. Make a firm investment in non-biotech agricultural research – and make sure it stays in the public domain.

  • Redirect funding within the Agricultural Research Service so that organic gets its fair share of funding — at least 4% what industrial agriculture does.

8. Help more people become farmers, and help the ones who've made that difficult choice succeed.

  • Protect the mandatory funding allocated for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program in the 2008 Farm Bill
  • Increase funding for the Risk Management Agency's Community Outreach program, which helps socially disadvantaged farmers
  • Signal that major health care reform remains a top priority in 2009, especially for the self-employed and small businesses, including farmers and rural entrepreneurs

9. Level the pasture for small farmers and ranchers

  • Start the rulemaking process under the Packers and Stockyards Act to end meat companies’ use of captive supplies of animals to manipulate livestock prices in their favor
  • Implement contract reform measures included in the Farm Bill to stop abusive practices between producers and meat companies
  • Establish criteria for undue preference
  • Implement the provisions from the Farm Bill that allow meat from state-inspected plants to cross state lines
  • Support states that put small mobile abattoirs on the roads by making inspectors available for them
  • Ensure that only active farmers and landlords who rent to active farmers can receive subsidy payments
  • Ask for and support the reintroduction and adoption of legislation to close payment loopholes and and establish a subsidy cap of $250,000 per farm.

10. Realize where the market has failed and help us weather it.

  • Support extra funding in the economic stimulus package for low-income food and nutrition programs
  • Providing enough money for WIC in the stimulus package so that, combined with the Farm Bill money, the program will be fully funded and we won’t have to rob Peter to pay Paula
  • Increase funding for the direct and guaranteed loan programs
  • Intervene to stabilize the milk price while a longer-term plan is worked out
  • Help fund and launch a Farm for America program, underwriting public-service oriented positions in urban and rural agriculture

3 Responsesto “Ready, set, go change the food system, part 2: More USDA action items”

  1. After investigating the topic of small scale slaughter/butcher plants and mobile facilities I've come to the realization that the mobile units are questionable, at least the way they're being done. Our state just built a very expensive mobile poultry processing plant, a trailer that is so big it can't get to a lot of farms. Some of these units have power, water and sewage requirements that make it so they can't be used at a lot of small farms. The farms are often on back roads that are impassible for such a large vehicle much of the year. The setup and break down time is large for each day of processing so that the unit must have a lot of animals to process at a single location. On top of this all the state can't find someone to operate the unit and I've heard they're now considering selling it before it has ever been used.
     
    There's talk of building one of these for read meat (beef, lamb, pork, goat) but that is even more expensive ($250K) and has the same issues. The mobile slaughter unit seemed like a good idea at the beginning but it was implemented in such a grandiose manner that it became unwieldy. 
     
    My conclusion is that rather than building these big mobile units it would be better to have many very small processors in two forms:
     
    1) Inspected (state & USDA) very small processing plants. This can be both on-farm and off. Farms doing regular sales can easily justify the setup and operation of a micro-processing plant, a very, very small processing plant, to do their own slaughter, butchering and smoking. The cost of processing is so high that it takes away almost half of our earnings. On-farm would be also better for the animals by reducing their stress and mean we as small farmers are absolutely sure we're getting back our meat.
     
    2) Trained but non-inspected mobile slaughterers who can go to farms, do the kill and gutting and then take the carcass back to butcher. We have this for hunting season. On-farm slaughter is far more hiegenic than gut shooting a deer out in the woods and tracking it for two hours before gutting it in the woods, dragging it out to the road, taking it to the tagging station and then to a butcher or cutting it at home. This option should be available for those who want it. Should sales from these slaughters be allowed in stores? Yes, if prominently labeled as such. The government should not stop people from making informed decisions.
     
    Given all the problems we're having out of the large processors, of both meat and veggies, it makes sense to have a lot of smaller processors who can pay more attention to doing things right rather than rushing the line.
     
    On the "Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program in the 2008 Farm Bill" I have been told repeatedly by government people that it doesn't really exist, that its just a ghost of an idea and not real. Rather bizarre.

  2. kareng says:

    hi this caught my eye.  I recently stated blogging in Columbus oh.  Our ODA is conducting meetings here about this.  Could you share this with there site?  localfodsystems.org  my own site with friends, who are chicken farming, which is evolving is localfoodcolumbus.wordpress.  I had some fun writing a piece I called Chicken Wars.

  3. Appreciated the article and used it as source material for a post I  wrote at <a href="http://www.supereco.com/news/2009/02/04/what-the-usda-needs-to-do-now/">Super Eco</a>.