Progressive agriculture groups rally for land access, climate-smart policies in farm bill
Demonstrators at the “Rally for Resilience,” headed by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, in Washington, D.C., on March 7, 2023. (Adam Goldstein/States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — Farmers and leaders from more than 20 progressive agricultural groups gathered this week to march on the U.S. Capitol, and promote climate solutions and underserved producers as priority issues for lawmakers in the upcoming farm bill.
“As farmers, we are close to the land. We love the land. We understand the sanctity and the sacredness of water. We understand the essence of life,” said Duane “Chili” Yazzie, a regenerative farmer in New Mexico and member of Shiprock Chapter of the Navajo Nation, to dozens of demonstrators at Freedom Plaza Tuesday.
“We demand that we — as small farmers, as the BIPOC farmers, as the farmers that need a helping hand — must have the provisions in the farm bill that make sense to us.”
During the three-day “Rally for Resilience,” headed by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, attendees met with lawmakers and hosted a demonstration at Freedom Plaza. Organizers called for sustainable practices, decreased industry consolidation, and improved land access for people of color and family farmers.
The farm bill is a multiyear omnibus spending law which authorizes an array of agricultural and food programs, including federal crop insurance, food stamp benefits, international food aid and farm resource conservation.
The roughly $500 billion bill is renewed close to every five years, and includes mandatory spending that must be in line with previous farm bills. The legislation is up for renewal in 2023.
Sustainable agriculture and climate change
Speakers at the Rally for Resilience lobbied for legislators to embrace regenerative agriculture in the upcoming farm bill, and help farmers become part of the climate solution amid worsening growing conditions.
Regenerative agriculture is a set of farming and grazing practices that work to restore soil ecosystem health, and can sequester carbon dioxide while increasing resilience to climate change.
“It makes me angry, and it makes me frustrated to see people in positions of power deny the reality and the severity of climate change,” said Marielena Vega, a farm worker organizer with the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, at the Tuesday demonstration.
Vega said that extreme heat is making summers increasingly difficult for farmworkers in Idaho, who face rising threats of heat stroke and dehydration along with the ever-present concern of pesticide exposure.
Norysell Massanet, a farmer from Puerto Rico, spoke Tuesday about the devastation of the island’s agricultural community after two major hurricanes in 2017. She said that Puerto Rico’s basic infrastructure is still recovering, and these hurricane events will only become more frequent as the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean warm.
“We need climate solutions that consider the well being of all lands, and all people,” Massanet said.
She urged Congress to provide a farm bill that “follows the science” and places renewable agriculture and rural development at its forefront.
David Senter, a founder of the American Agriculture Movement, which mobilized a 1979 Tractorcade in Washington for industry reform, lobbied for regenerative and small-scale family farmers as part of the climate solution.
“Family producers care about the soil and water,” Senter said at the Tuesday rally. “Corporations care about the bottom line.”
Yadi Wang, a first-generation regenerative farmer in Tucson, Arizona, said that he is part of a growing number of farmers who believe land stewardship is more important than land ownership.
Wang said regenerative practices have allowed his employer, Oatman Flats Ranch, to maintain a resilient and profitable grain-and-livestock operation in one of the driest climates in the country.
“Congress needs to invest more money on land management, on soil and water conservation so that we can truly have viable land and farmers can continue to grow food for the people,” Wang said at the Tuesday rally. “Regenerative agriculture is the way forward.”
Antitrust and consolidation
Democratic U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna of California joined rally organizers for a Wednesday media event, and said farmers’ ability to be a part of the climate solution has been muted by corporate consolidation of farmland and “monopolistic concentration of power.” He touted his just-introduced Farm System Reform Act as a potential tool to curtail some of these business models.
“A lot of the people who are running a lot of these farms don’t live in the communities where those farms are,” Khanna said. They don’t care about the pollution. They don’t care if they’re destroying the land, but maximizing profits.”
Johanna Chao Kreilick, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said at the Wednesday press event that farmers live and work on the front lines of the climate emergency.
She added that corporate farms, and the resource-intensive inputs they depend on, are a key driver of this increased volatility in farming.
“We need to be super clear about the role that corporate agriculture, Big Ag, has played in our agricultural system and how it’s contributing to the climate crisis,” Chao Kreilick said.
Angela Dawson, a fourth-generation reclamation Black farmer from Sandstone, Minnesota, said at the Tuesday rally that people are aware that over the last 50 years, the farm bill has set the stage for a highly consolidated food system. Dawson defines reclamation farming as reclaiming and working the farm her family lost two generations ago.
She added that five major egg corporations control the grocery sector, four large companies control the beef industry, and two companies control the bulk of the commodity seed market.
“We’re calling on Congress to create a farm bill that puts community over corporations, people over profits, and reduces and repairs the harm that has been done to the environment,” Dawson said.
Lindsay Klaunig, who runs a regenerative produce-and-livestock farm near Athens, Ohio, spoke at the Wednesday event and added that more work must be done to reduce consolidation in seed sales, especially as overseas supply chains experience disruption and regenerative regional agriculture grows.
“We need publicly supported, farmer-driven breeding and research to ensure that all growers at any scale, in any setting, have access to locally adapted seeds without the restrictions of privately-owned companies,” Klaunig said.
Land access, support for underserved producers
Other speakers pointed to the opportunity for the farm bill to rectify historical injustices, including land access for farmers who are people of color, and increased health protections for farmworkers.
Dorathy Barker, a Black dairy farmer from Oxford, North Carolina, spoke at the Wednesday press event to advocate for land access and increased technical assistance for farmers of color.
Barker said she does not believe there has been a farm bill “written with Black people in mind,” amid a “bleak climate” for these producers. She said Black farmers are often manipulated by predatory buyers and legal advisers into lowering prices for their goods and problematic land sales.
“We as Black women, we speak up for our rights,” Parker said. “But over years and years — in some states for over 400 years — we have been traumatized and marginalized. Always the lack of markets.”
Julieta Saucedo, a small-scale farmer from El Paso, Texas, spoke at the Tuesday rally about a lack of land access for marginalized farmers. She said that oftentimes, these underserved producers only have land that has been ruined by decades of mismanagement and extractive farming.
“When I see soil erosion by wind and water, when I see depleted soil, depleted lands from monocropping, soil so compacted that it will break your shovel, I also see it as the consequences of old and modern slavery,” Saucedo said.
She advocated for increased access to farmland for small producers and people of color, along with holding corporations accountable for the damage done to the land.
Klaunig said that a theme she heard repeatedly during the event resonated: farmer-led solutions should come first.
“Too often farmers are handed directives from — maybe well intentioned — institutions, but they’re out of touch,” she said. “Farmers know how to find cheap, effective and adaptable solutions to our climate crisis, let them and help them.”
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Correction: This story was updated to correct the home state of Duane “Chili” Yazzie.
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