Family Farms: Policy & Advocacy

Changes in agricultural policy at all levels of government could help protect farming families and encourage young people to go back to the land.

small farm

We need federal agricultural and food policies that really work for farmers, markets, consumers, and the environment. Many networks such as the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture (NCSA), the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), the Rural Coalition (RC), Farm Aid, and the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) have put forward such policy initiatives, some of which made it through the 2002 Farm Bill. These initiatives include the following: (for the most comprehensive and recent information on many of these programs from the 2008 Farm Bill, go to the Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill which is on the NCSA website).

Provide a Larger Share of the Food Dollar to Family Farmers
Fair prices for farm products and a sustainable livelihood for independent family farmers are key to the survival of family farms. From 1910 to 1990 the share of the agricultural economy received by farmers dropped from 21 to 5 percent (“A Time To Act,” USDA Commission on Small Farms). In recent years the prices farmers receive for wheat, corn, soybeans, plus hogs and cattle, have declined precipitously. Small-scale farmers have found a niche in direct marketing to the consumer through food coops and farmers’ markets, providing them with a larger share of the food dollar. We need more comprehensive fair-price policies that cover the costs of production and a return on investment for all family farmers – from the marketplace, not from subsidies, and by opening up new domestic markets. (See the programs on “Competitive Markets & Commodity Program Reform” and “Local Food Systems & Rural Development” in the guide mentioned above).

Shift Federal Agricultural Policy to Support Small and Diversified Farms
Current federal agricultural policy is biased toward large, specialized farms. Commodity program payments, loan payments, crop insurance, and disaster payments dominate federal agricultural policy. We need increased federal support for small-scale and diversified farms, focusing resources on programs for research, technical assistance, credit and other funding across USDA programs that assist small-scale farms. (See the paper “Making Changes: Turning Local Visions Into National Solutions” from the Henry A. Wallace Center for Agricultural & Environmental Policy at Winrock International).

Increase Competition Among and Reduce the Monopoly Power of Agri-businesses
A small number of agribusiness corporations control vast areas of U.S. food production and distribution. For example, four major companies control 84 percent of the total cereal market (annual $8 billion U.S. sales). Farmers are caught between a few giant providers of inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) and a few giant purchasers of raw commodities. Such concentration prevents farmers from selling their commodities at competitive prices in a competitive market, while consumers are forced to pay higher prices for lower-quality food and given little choice.

Anti-trust policies should be enforced, and the bargaining power of small- and mid-sized farmers should be increased. Negotiations around the 2002 Farm Bill would have set real limits to commodity payments, closed loopholes, and restored a measure of fairness, integrity and equity to farm programs. Unfortunately, most of these reforms did not get through into the final bill, but a tremendous amount of publicity was drawn to the scandal of “corporate welfare” to the largest farmers and agribusinesses.

Encourage On-Farm Conservation Practices and Reduced Agri-Chemical Usage
The Conservation Security Program (CSP) was passed in the 2002 Farm Bill as an entitlement program, providing incentives for stewardship of working land by farmers and ranchers of all types, rewarding practices used and the environmental benefits derived rather than the crops or livestock being produced. Farmers are being rewarded for providing clean water, fertile soil, wildlife habitats, biodiversity, and other environmental benefits on land that is being actively farmed. This was a major victory for sustainable agriculture in the U.S. but the degree of victory will depend on whether the program will be funded. (For information on this and connected programs, see the “Conservation” section of the Federal Sustainable Agriculture Program Primer).

Community Food Security and Nutrition Programs
Community food projects, SNAP for legal immigrants, incentives to purchase locally produced foods, and farmers’ market nutrition programs were further victories in the 2002 Farm Bill (see”Community Food Security/Nutrition” in the primer mentioned above.) These initiatives will help to build up sustainable local and regional food systems.

Equity and Justice
Campaigns for food and justice led by the Rural Coalition provide a particularly comprehensive approach to agricultural policy and rural development, advocating funding for outreach programs to minority farmers and extension offices in Indian reservations. The 2002 Farm Bill produced some successes in this area of equity and justice (see the primer under Equity and Justice). Farm workers have rights to a fair wage as well as safe and dignified working conditions, to equal protection under the law and the right to bargain collectively. We need comprehensive legislation to enforce these rights.

Initiatives such as these to save threatened family farms and develop local and regional food movements are vital in themselves, but they also provide ways to begin turning around the huge economy of food production and distribution in the U.S., which adds $1 trillion to the national economy, provides 13 percent of GDP, and employs 17 percent of the labor force. This wider goal is to promote healthy food, farms and communities throughout the U.S.