In order to change the food system, farmers and sustainable food advocates must build grassroots power on the most vital issues, according to Margaret Krome. She was a keynote speaker at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) recent conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Krome, Policy Director at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wisconsin, told the MOSES participants that “the processes of government at the state level are not as open as they should be, so we need to have vocal protests and push decision-makers to change this situation.”
As a watchdog on federal agriculture policy, Krome said the latest Farm Bill has not been fully processed and there has been none of the usual debate that has accompanied past farm bills. Also, no one really knows what is in the actual bill. “This is not democracy,” said Krome.
Krome also mentioned that there is a lot at stake for the Farm Bill in 2012. Many programs important to the organic farming movement will receive mandatory funding only if the Farm Bill is reauthorized. These include the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the Farmers’ Market Organic Certification Research Program, Biomass Crop Assistance, and Value-Added Producer Grants. Those watching the Farm Bill need to note that some of the appropriations are indeed in the mandatory category, which “shall” be funded, but others are only discretionary, and the language covering those programs states only that they “may” be funded. Sustainable agriculture advocates need to be alert to these differences in language and their implications, said Krome.
Krome also believes that mandatory funding for farm conservation programs is vital for the Farm Bill, particularly for a program such as the Conservation Stewardship Program. “We see 100,000 acres of farmland eroding beyond reasonable rates each year, and that’s a tremendous cause for alarm,” said Krome. She argued that farmers need sustainably-maintained land to continue to make farming economically viable. However, noted Krome, first $1 billion was cut from the federal agricultural conservation budget, and then another $500 million. “There should be no more cuts to the conservation budget,” Krome said. She noted that the Conservation Stewardship program provides key incentives for farmers to conserve their land and ensures conservation compliance, providing for erosion prevention, the protection of clean water, and innovations in energy.
Commodity program reform must happen, said Krome, and there must be an end to direct farm payments. Instead, thoughtful crop insurance should be a cornerstone of federal agricultural policy that works to eliminate any extra costs carried by organic farmers. The local food movement also needs federal policies that create access to credit, meet the needs of beginning farmers, and develop the farm-to-school movement.
Krome believes local, sustainable farming advocates are most effective when they tell stories that show why this funding matters. Grassroots organizers need to showcase what is going on in a way that is accessible to decision-makers. Local farming advocates do have the power to bring change, she said. For example, the Illinois Stewardship Program–which provides support for local foods–was passed by the Illinois Senate after advocates laid the groundwork at the state capital, sponsoring a “Local Food Awareness Day” in which every legislator received a tomato plant and met with constituents to discuss the importance of state policies that supported local growers. This was followed up in 2011 by the passage of the Illinois Cottage Food Bill, which passed largely because it was presented as an issue that transcended partisanship.
From her perspective as a legislative and policy advocate, Krome noted that what makes a difference to legislators are the stories of how farmers are working to provide sustainable, healthy alternatives in their home states. “All of us need to tell legislators how the money spent in different federal programs directly helps us and helps others, what difference this funding makes,” Krome said. She also said that there is no substitute for meeting with members of Congress to share these stories thoughtfully and respectfully. Voting, advocating, and joining with farm groups that are voicing concerns about agricultural policy are all significant ways to bring change. Krome issued a call to action to all of us at the MOSES Conference: “We have tremendous power as farmers and citizens, and we need to step up, act, and participate in our democracy; that’s how change happens.”