Getting heard on the Hill
Organic and sustainable farmers travel to Washington, D.C., to advocate farm policy reform—and meet with their environmental allies.

By Laura Sayre

Posted March 17, 2005: The highlight was probably standing on the subway platform at Metro Center at 11:00 PM, singing a call-and-response version of "Mad Cow," the winning song from the talent show at the 2004 Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference. Shaking hands with Rep. Dennis Kucinich wasn't bad either.

Last week, a group of 14 organic and sustainable farmers from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Ohio invited me to tag along as they ascended Capitol Hill to speak out for U.S. farm policy reform. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to gain a better understanding of how federal farm policy directly impacts the ability of conventional farmers across the U.S. to convert to organic methods—or even to maintain the traditional stewardship methods practiced by their fathers and grandfathers.

The three-day fly-in agenda was orchestrated by the Minneapolis office of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) and included more than 30 meetings with members of Congress or their aides, including the offices of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), and Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN). Meetings targeted representatives from the farmers' home states as well as members of key Congressional committees such as the Senate and House Agriculture Committees and Budget Committees.

It was my first time visiting Congressional offices, but most of the farmers who came on the trip were already seasoned political activists.

It was my first time visiting Congressional offices, but most of the farmers who came on the trip were already seasoned political activists. A number of them sit on LSP's Federal Farm Policy Committee meeting several times a year to connect what's going on in their rural communities to active and proposed federal legislation. Some were involved in the formation of the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (the first of the SAWGs, founded in 1988) and its D.C.-based sister organization, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (SAC).

Other members of the group participated in a similar fly-in organized by LSP in 1999 to advocate conservation provisions and other reforms for the 2002 Farm Bill. The Conservation Security Program (CSP) was one of the outcomes of their and others' efforts to guide federal ag programs toward rewarding farmers for good environmental stewardship, rather than for producing commodity surpluses.

Among the group's top priorities for this trip were to argue for reduced per-farmer federal agricultural payment limits and the continuation of CSP. The trip was initially intended to focus on early discussions for the 2007 Farm Bill, but as it turned out the farmers also had the opportunity to make last-minute appeals regarding proposed cuts in ag appropriations within the 2006 federal budget.

As most readers of The New Farm probably know, President Bush's proposed 2006 budget, released a few weeks ago, included a reduction in the per-farmer annual federal agricultural payment limit from its current level of $360,000 (often breached in practice) to a 'firm' $250,000. Despite the urgent need to trim spending in the face of massive federal budget deficits, the reduction is strongly opposed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, major commodity groups and the Senate and House delegations from rice and cotton states.

"The President is proposing a $250,000 cap on subsidy payments. We think it should be $50,000," explained Iowa organic farmer Greg Koether. In farmer meetings LSP held across Minnesota this winter, not a single farmer argued in favor of a cap higher than $50,000--and some contended it should be lower still.

There is widespread concern within the sustainable ag community that cuts will be made instead to conservation programs like CSP, which although authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill has yet to receive full funding. The LSP group was seeking to move the goalposts in the subsidy-reduction debate, arguing that substantial savings could be had by correcting a system in which just 10 percent of farmers receive 68 percent of USDA payments.

"The President is proposing a $250,000 cap on subsidy payments. We think it should be $50,000," explained Iowa organic farmer Greg Koether, who was accompanied on the trip by his teenaged daughter Kayla. Mark Schultz, LSP's policy and organizing program director, agreed, noting that in farmer meetings LSP had held across Minnesota this winter, not a single farmer had argued in favor of a cap higher than $50,000, and some had contended it should be lower still.

Some of the congressional members with whom the farmers met were sympathetic to this argument. Darin Schroeder, an aide to Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI), pointed out that fewer than half a dozen farmers in Wisconsin would be affected by a $250,000 cap. Others were less receptive. "Representative LaHood [R-IL] basically said, 'We care about conservation, but we're not tinkering with the Farm Bill!'" reported Paul Gebhart, who farms organically in Illinois and is chair of the board of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.

"It's really discouraging to see the effects of government programs encouraging a shift to growing commodity crops exclusively," said Dan Specht, another organic farmer from Iowa. "I have 500 feet of elevation on my farm—you just can't put land like that into continuous row crops." (Click here for more on Dan Specht and his farm.)

While NRCS has been strongly supportive of no-till—a conservation strategy practiced by many conventional farmers—the use of crop rotations, which are central to the management strategies of organic farmers, are not among the official 'conservation practices' recognized by NRCS.

Jeff Klinge, a near neighbor of Specht's, sought to explain to the lawmakers how even some federal programs intended to protect soil resources were misused. He described how a farm near his had been carefully managed for decades by a farmer who kept his most erodible lands in grass and received little in the way of federal payments. That farmer was recently bought out by a larger farmer, who promptly applied for and received an NRCS cost-share to install terraces and crop the land, resulting in serious soil loss. "Terracing is not enough," Klinge emphasized. "You can achieve better erosion control through crop rotations." (Click here for more on Jeff Klinge and his farm.)

Similarly, he went on, while NRCS has been strongly supportive of no-till—a conservation strategy practiced by many conventional farmers—the use of diverse, resource-conserving crop rotations, which are central to the fertility and pest management strategies of organic farmers, are not among the official 'conservation practices' recognized by NRCS.

In addition, the group argued that the whole farm support system should be simplified, that programs to help beginning farmers and ranchers should be strengthened and that payments from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) should not be permitted to fund manure storage systems for large-scale animal confinement operations.

Farmers joining forces with environmental groups, fiscal conservatives

With record-breaking budget deficits and Republican majorities in both houses, prospects for progressive federal agricultural policies might seem to be slim. But there are also some unusual opportunities out there. Rep. Steve King, a second-term Republican from western Iowa, for instance, reportedly expressed interest in trying to develop a program to help beginning farmers get access to acreage scheduled to come out of the Conservation Reserve Program over the next few years. Many hundreds of acres will be coming out of CRP in 2007, and it's an open question what will be done next with that land.

Some counties in western Iowa have the highest allowable percentage of land enrolled in CRP, noted Specht, so that issue will be a big deal in King's district. "In a lot of communities CRP resulted not just in land retirement but in farmer retirement," noted Specht. "Traditionally, grazing livestock on marginal land was where a lot of young farmers got started."

Perhaps the most significant positive development since their 1999 Hill visit, the farmers agreed, is the fact that powerful environmental groups have gotten seriously involved in agriculture issues. Frank Casey of Defenders of Wildlife said, "The more people we have out there farming and ranching, the better it is for wildlife."

Perhaps the most significant positive development since their 1999 Hill visit, the farmers agreed, is the fact that powerful environmental groups have gotten seriously involved in agriculture issues. The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is itself a member of a group known as the Conservation Coalition, which meets monthly at the office of Defenders of Wildlife to coordinate work to promote sustainable farming and ranching and limit the damaging environmental effects of agribusiness operations. A number of environmental groups first got involved in farm policy during the run-up to the 2002 Farm Bill, and have kept at least a few staff people working on those issues ever since.

Big ag groups try to promote actual or potential conflicts between farmers and environmentalists, said Specht. But environmentalists are increasingly interested in hearing from organic and sustainable farmers. Frank Casey, director of Defenders of Wildlife's Conservation Economics Program, told members of the group that their view was, "The more people we have out there farming and ranching, the better it is for wildlife."

The group said they were also pleased with the positive reception they received from Congressional members representing more urban and suburban constituencies. "I'm hearing a lot more support from consumers and consumer groups," said Gebhart. "Judy Biggert [R-IL] shops at Whole Foods."

Nevertheless, the visit underscored the need to engage a wider segment of the U.S. population with the intricacies of federal farm policy. "You've got to get more people interested in this Farm Bill than have ever been interested before," said Mark Halverson of Senator Harkin's office during a meeting with the Midwestern farmers. "It's critical that we sustain the progress made in 2002, and not have to fight those battles again."

Also on the trip were farmers Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen of Montevideo, Minn., Dan French of Dodge Center, Minn., LouAnne Kling of Granite Falls, Minn., Paul Sobocinksi of Wabasso, Minn., Dave Serfling of Preston, Minn., Joe Logan of Kinsman, Ohio, Jeff Longfellow of Bedford, Iowa; Ohio State University graduate student Kristin Mack; and LSP organizer Adam Warthesen. The farmers raise a wide variety of crops and livestock, including organic corn, soybeans, barley, flax, pigs, cattle, and chickens.