The Farm Bill is the primary agriculture and food policy legislation of the federal government and is passed approximately every five years. This omnibus bill determines policy and funding levels for agriculture, food assistance programs, natural resources, and other aspects of food and agriculture under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The current Farm Bill expires in the Fall of 2023, and Congress — especially its Agriculture Committees — will spend much of 2023 working on the next Farm Bill.
RAFI-USA’s Farm Bill platform, like all of our policy work, is directly informed by the lessons we have learned over decades as we provide farm advocacy, technical assistance, and other services to farmers and community members. Our 2023 platform process incorporated ideas and feedback from our policy team, RAFI-USA staff overall, and farmer/community stakeholder policy advisors.
RAFI-USA has also contributed to the platforms of coalitions in which we hold membership, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, National Family Farm Coalition, and HEAL Food Alliance.
RAFI-USA 2023 Farm Bill Platform
Read our one-page platform summary here. Read the full details below!
RAFI-USA’s mission is to challenge the root causes of unjust food systems, supporting and advocating for economically, racially, and ecologically just farm communities. RAFI-USA will fight for a Farm Bill that returns control of the food system to local farmers and their communities, not corporations — one that reverses the trend of consolidation in the food system. The next Farm Bill must give farmers the tools to adapt to and mitigate climate change. It must level the playing field for small-scale, agroecological, organic, diversified, and beginning farmers, ensuring they have the financial and structural supports and opportunities to allow them to succeed. It must build local and regional food system infrastructure and increase access to fresh local food for food-insecure people. And it must address and acknowledge past discrimination and change the current systems that perpetuate it.
Corporate consolidation is at the root of many of the structural ills of our food system. When corporations have the ability to dictate terms to farmers, farmers lose. Corporations place the burden of financial liability on farmers, dictate details of farm management, restrict access to information, erode farmers’ legal options, and legally and financially intimidate the farmers they deal with.1 Corporations also consolidate ownership of the other steps of the supply chain that farmers depend on — inputs, processing, distribution, and marketing — leaving farmers few options but to deal with an entity against which they have effectively no voice or bargaining power. This is done in the name of efficiency and low prices, but as the pandemic and the past few years have shown us, this efficient system is not resilient. It has not delivered good livelihoods for farmers, safe conditions for workers, or low prices for consumers, only record profits for shareholders.
The 2023 Farm Bill should seek to restore market fairness in our food system by strengthening protections against corporate power abuse and establishing clear market rules that are fair for all involved. USDA is already making important progress towards these goals through its Packers and Stockyards Act rulemaking process by mandating greater transparency in the poultry industry and by strengthening protections against corporate deception and discrimination across all livestock sectors. In 2023, USDA will have the opportunity to build on this progress by prohibiting unfair practices that corporations use to manipulate markets and prices, including the use of tournament systems in poultry contracts and the use of cattle formula contracts tied to the cash market. It is imperative that Congress be fully supportive of these critical efforts in the Farm Bill.
Beyond supporting USDA’s rulemaking process, the 2023 Farm Bill itself should also advance important market fairness reforms. Corporations exert too much control over today’s livestock markets. Prohibiting meatpacker ownership of livestock, establishing cash market purchase minimums for meatpackers, and comprehensively reforming regulations on livestock and poultry production contracts would begin to level the playing field. Mandatory country-of-origin labeling for beef, pork, and dairy, and additional mandatory contract libraries could also ensure greater market transparency. Finally, the Farm Bill should boost USDA’s ability to aggressively enforce fair market protections by establishing a Special Investigator for Competition Matters at USDA, doubling the USDA’s funding to enforce market fairness and competition laws, and providing regulators with additional authorities to more effectively protect farmers and ranchers.
Beyond market fairness reforms, Congress must pass reforms to antitrust law to reverse the trend of corporate consolidation in our food system and break up corporations that amass and abuse dominant market power. Current antitrust legal standards focus narrowly on the relative competitive effects of mergers and acquisitions and their impact on consumer prices. In the food system, this leaves out vital considerations regarding how corporate concentration and power abuse impact farmers and workers, regional food economies, and the security and resilience of food production and supply chains (as we learned during the COVID-19 crisis). There is a need for 21st-century updates to the foundations of our antitrust laws that would allow antitrust regulators to break up dominant firms and reverse trends of corporate consolidation not only on competition grounds but also based on food system resilience standards.
The next Farm Bill must be a comprehensive climate bill, which gives producers of all sizes both incentives and support to implement climate-friendly practices on their farms.
This support starts with investing in existing conservation programs — currently underfunded and oversubscribed — which have a proven track record, like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Farmers with eligible plans and strong scoring applications can still wind up waiting years for funding. Funding for the Conservation Title should be restored at least to pre-2014 levels.
Increasing program funding without a focus on equitable access could simply magnify existing inequities concerning which farmers have historically benefitted from USDA resources and support; the Farm Bill must take a number of measures to ensure those resources reach BIPOC producers and other historically underserved farmers in an equitable manner.
The existing “advance payment option” for historically underserved producers, which limits the out-of-pocket costs of implementing approved conservation practices, should be changed from 50% to 100%.
Funding must also be devoted to technical assistance providers who can help BIPOC producers learn about and access those conservation programs. Outreach to farmers of color on these programs has historically been lacking, and the programs can also be complicated to navigate. The Farm Bill should create a Conservation Program Navigator program to allow USDA to award grants or make cooperative agreements with nonprofits that can provide that information, connection, and support to BIPOC farmers. Such grants should not include matching requirements, and the grant application process needs to be simplified and streamlined. Additionally, it will be important for those program navigators to be able to provide coordinated technical assistance across farmer-facing USDA agencies such as NRCS, FSA, and RMA since farmers’ success or failure to access resources often involves all three agencies. Additionally, translation and interpretation should be named as one of the explicit purposes of the program to ensure that language barriers do not prevent farmers from accessing resources. Such a program could be housed within the 2501 program,2 if appropriate, though funding for it must be additional, and not come from existing 2501 funds.
We also know through our work helping farmers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to access NRCS programs, that official conservation practices as currently established do not always take into account local conditions on island territories or traditional practices that farmers have implemented to sustain and care for their land in their particular conditions. The next Farm Bill should recognize traditional, ecological, knowledge-based conservation practices, and explicitly allow a Tribe or group of Tribes within a state or region to develop those standards for areas of Tribal jurisdiction (per the recommendations of the Native Farm Bill Coalition).
Additionally, the NRCS ranking tool CART (Conservation Assessment Ranking Tool) needs to be more transparent. NRCS should publish clear information on the process and how it varies according to locality, field staff must be trained to provide clear and consistent information, and farmers should receive a report on their CART outcomes.
USDA’s commitment to fighting climate change must be agency-wide. Crop insurance, for example, is a vital tool for both recognizing the long-term risks of climate change and the long-term benefits of mitigating and adapting to it. The Farm Bill should use crop insurance as a way to reward and incentivize producers for practices that improve soil health and mitigate climate change. For example, farmers could receive a per-acre premium discount on their crop insurance for employing soil-building practices approved by NRCS, or full premium subsidies for adopting and implementing soil health plans. Farmers should not be punished by the Risk Management Agency for implementing conservation practices that temporarily lower their yield.
Organic agriculture must also be a part of our response to addressing the climate crisis. Organic production offers numerous climate benefits, both for farm resilience and greenhouse gas mitigation. The next Farm Bill should ensure that producers have the support they need to grow organically—and for non-organic certified farmers to transition to organic certification. It should raise the certification cost-share cap to $1,500, with exceptions allowed where certification costs are disproportionately high or for socially disadvantaged producers.3 It should provide grants to nonprofits to assist producers with the transition to organic certification, including the ability to make subgrants to producers. Furthermore, it should provide additional resources to train technical assistance providers to support organic growers.
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was established to provide a transparent place for organic stakeholders to deliberate and provide input into organic standards. However, rule-making by USDA on consensus recommendations from the NOSB has stagnated. The next Farm Bill must require USDA to implement the existing and future recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board in a timely manner.
Seeds are one of the foundational building blocks of our food system. For resilient, sustainable agriculture to be possible, farmers need seeds that are publicly available and adapted to organic and sustainable production in their bioregion. We are all at risk as we lose biodiversity within our collective seed stock, with crops that become less resilient to new weather, pest, and disease pressures—and corporate capture of seed intellectual property ownership puts control of one of the most important pieces of our food system into private hands motivated by profit, rather than maintaining it as a collective resource for the public good. Unfortunately, public seed breeding programs are incredibly underfunded. In the next Farm Bill, Congress must prioritize this crucial resource by providing increased mandatory funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), the primary source of funding for public plant breeding research.
RAFI-USA has significant concerns with the implementation and potential impacts of carbon markets. Given the current use of various carbon credit programs, as well as the recent passage of the Growing Climate Solutions act, it seems probable that carbon markets are here to stay in some form. We enumerate our concerns, problems that remain to be solved, and solutions we would like to see, below.
RAFI-USA believes that farmers should be rewarded for environmentally sustainable practices, including those that have a helpful impact on reducing our overall greenhouse gas emissions. However, putting that financial reward in the context of a hypothetical overall amount of emissions that might or might not be emitted, and allowing companies to essentially pay to pollute, create an incentive structure that both fails to deliver net climate benefits and harms the communities who experience that pollution. We are also concerned that the structure of carbon markets will reward the largest farms, disadvantaging small- and mid-scale farms, and that it will drive farm and land loss as wealthy investors and corporations go after the land as an increasingly attractive investment opportunity. It is also a dangerous opportunity for corporations to amass and own huge amounts of data which should belong to farmers.
The policy solutions to these concerns are numerous and go beyond the scope of this document, however, we support a few here. First, existing conservation programs – already in high demand – need more funding, and need reforms to make them more accessible to historically underserved farmers. In general, programs that help achieve conservation goals or steward natural resources, should not be dependent on being linked to emissions pollution happening elsewhere, and their success and funding must not be dependent on the private sector. Additionally, in any carbon market program, corporations should not be allowed to offset emissions that they could instead eliminate. It is far more effective to keep fossil fuels in the ground rather than offsetting their extraction and consumption.
A Fair Shot For All Farmers
All farmers deserve support, however, the support offered by USDA to farmers has historically helped some groups vastly more than others, resulting in both lost land and lost opportunities for farmers of color, and a long-term trend of farm consolidation as farms were told to get big or get out. The 2023 Farm Bill must invest in a level playing field, and ensure that access to credit, land, and other resources and supports are as available to BIPOC farmers, small-scale farmers, and beginning farmers as they are to other producers. The Conservation Program Navigator program mentioned above is one such mechanism to ensure resources are equitably distributed. Access to credit and grants are two crucial ingredients for success, alongside additional equity measures.
Access to credit is vital for farmers, both for purchasing annual inputs and supplies for each growing season and for expanding and growing their operations. The Farm Service Agency (FSA) is known as the “lender of last resort,” a place where farmers can seek credit when commercial banks turn them down. The agency’s record, however, has resulted in a reputation where for some farmers of color, avoiding the agency altogether has been a survival strategy for their farm passed down through generations. There are numerous ways the agency can discriminate or make things harder for a farmer. The loan officer may demand an amount of collateral that either scares a farmer away from the loan altogether or puts their farm and home at higher risk when they do get the loan. There are also many opportunities for an FSA agent to legally make the process harder and longer for farmers (even on the basis of erroneous decisions or information), leaving farmers with little recourse—sometimes losing a growing season or other land or assets. Over decades these practices have led many farmers of color, quite reasonably, to be cautious about engaging with FSA at all.
The next Farm Bill should address over-collateralization in FSA lending, give farmers more information, voice, and leverage in the loan application and appeals process, and make farmers eligible for financial “equitable relief” in situations involving agency error. It should also eliminate the arbitrary seven-year eligibility limit that cuts farmers off from FSA lending, in many cases before they have been able to establish a relationship with another lender. It should restore eligibility for farmers who have had previous debt “write-downs” with the agency since those write-downs are predicated on the farmer acting in good faith and the write-down being in the best interest of the agency. Another very helpful change for farmers who are navigating their way out of financial crisis would be to add “refinancing indebtedness” as an eligible purpose for FSA loans.
Farmers also face barriers to credit based on having a more diversified production plan or a business model based on selling into higher-value markets, or on their status as beginning farmers. The Farm Bill must support better access to credit for those farmers, providing an on-ramp for beginning farmers to be able to build up their businesses over their first few years of production. Additionally, the Farm Bill should empower FSA with new ways of strategically investing in a regionally coordinated way to support innovative agribusinesses and cooperatives that support climate-resilient and community-rooted regional agriculture economies. These kinds of investments will ensure that projects with broader benefits for farmers and the public good have at least as much access to credit as those building the production base for giant agribusiness corporations.
While FSA loans are a crucial place to ensure equitable access, many more farmers seek loans from commercial lenders or from government-sponsored enterprises like the Farm Credit system. The Farm Bill must ensure that those lenders are also serving farmers equitably and not engaging in discrimination based on race, gender, or other identities. In particular, those lenders should be required to collect and report on the racial and gender demographics of who they are lending to. For lenders to qualify as “guaranteed borrowers,” they should have to demonstrate both that they are 1) not engaging in discrimination in their loan-making process, as demonstrated by the demographics of their borrowers and 2) serving their borrowers well, providing equitable loan servicing when borrowers are in distress, as demonstrated by farmer success.
Land access and land retention are hugely important issues for farmers, doubly so where decades of discrimination have resulted in massive land loss by Black farmers, Indigenous farmers, and other farmers of color. While access to credit is an important part of that picture, there are additional issues to consider as well – for example, supporting heirs property landowners who inherited land without a clear title, an issue that impacts Black and Indigenous farmers disproportionately. In addition to being at elevated risk of losing that land, not having a clear title can be a barrier to accessing USDA programs. The next Farm Bill must support programs designed to ensure equitable access to land, including among others the Heirs Property Relending Program.
One of the most common things we hear from farmers when we ask what USDA could do to help them better is, “more grant (not loan) opportunities.” Very few USDA grant programs are available for individual farmers rather than nonprofits. The Value-Added Producer Grant program is one of the only programs to do so, and it is both very time-intensive to apply for, and not a good fit for every small farmer’s situation.
Given all the barriers mentioned above faced by BIPOC and beginning farmers in accessing credit, the next Farm Bill should also establish a microgrant program that provides grants from $5,000 to $30,000 to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. Grants should be simple to apply for and farmers should be able to use them for operating expenses, purchases of equipment or infrastructure, or implementation of practices or infrastructure to help them to adapt to climate change and extreme weather conditions. Urban farmers are another group of farmers who have difficulty fitting into USDA’s “boxes” and accessing USDA programs. A microgrant program could be a crucial stepping stone for urban farmers to be able to implement and improve infrastructure for their operations. Farmer cooperatives (frequently not eligible for programs built specifically for 501(c)3 nonprofits) should also be eligible to apply for this funding. The next Farm Bill should also increase funding for USDA’s Urban Agriculture Innovation Production Grant Program and prioritize BIPOC farmers and organizations led and staffed by people of color.
RAFI-USA believes in reparations. Where there has been injury, there should be repair. Where there has been systemic injury, there should be systemic repair. In the next Farm Bill, Congress should make every attempt to acknowledge and address the federal government’s role in both allowing and perpetuating racial discrimination in our agricultural system. RAFI-USA supports the goals of the Justice for Black Farmers Act to “reform the U.S. Department of Agriculture and create a land grant program to encourage a new generation of Black Farmers”. Protecting the remaining Black-owned land, support of historically Black colleges and universities, reforms to the USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights, and additional resources for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers are desperately needed. While the history of racial discrimination and exploitation in our agricultural system is broad, it is also specific; and in addition to the measures above focused on repairing centuries of harm to Black farmers, specific reforms and reparations are also needed to address the systemic treatment aimed at specific groups, including Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American & Pacific Islander farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers.
One crucial program historically has been the “Section 2501” program, created to help underserved farmers, ranchers, and foresters, who have historically experienced limited access to USDA programs and services. It was paired in the 2018 Farm Bill with the Beginning Farmers & Ranchers Development Program to create the new Farming Opportunities Training & Outreach (FOTO) program. The next Farm Bill should increase funding for 2501 as well as program transparency and reporting. Additionally, Congress should take steps to ensure that USDA gives organizations sufficient time to prepare the time-consuming applications, longer than the 30-day period which has been granted in the past.
Congress should provide increased support for interpretation and translation services across the board at USDA, as well as hold USDA accountable for ensuring they are provided proactively. Given the difficulty of navigating many program requirements even in one’s native language, simply providing translated forms will not be enough in many cases; USDA must also make provisions for interpretation or person-to-person support which is provided in a farmers’ first language. Cooperative agreements are one way to expand USDA’s ability to provide this support, and Congress should provide funding for both cooperative agreements and additional USDA staff for this purpose.
Build Local and Regional Food System Infrastructure and Increase Food Access
Over the years, corporate consolidation has hollowed out many of the elements of the food supply chain on which local farmers depend — small-scale processing and rural groceries being two notable casualties. The next Farm Bill must take deliberate steps to rebuild that infrastructure.
While USDA began investing in more meat processing capacity with funds appropriated by Congress during the pandemic, the Farm Bill should maintain this funding, and create a more streamlined application process for small and very small processing plants, for whom the existing application process is extremely burdensome. Priority for awards should be given to small and very small plants and applicants from socially disadvantaged groups, and match requirements should be lowered, especially for groups with less access to capital historically. The Farm Bill should also increase funding and outreach for the Cooperative Interstate Shipment program, which allows for state-inspected plants to sell products interstate, and would help expand the markets for those plants. Congress should also fund continued workforce development programs, expanding eligible entities beyond higher education to include on-the-job training programs, and prioritizing BIPOC-led organizations and businesses.
The Farm Bill should also establish new and improved livestock risk management programs and grants for small ranchers who are scaling their businesses to sell direct to consumers and local institutional buyers.
Of course, a huge determining factor in farmers’ success is their ability to market their products – and not every step of that process is necessarily under the farmers’ control. Those markets must exist in the first place, and be accessible to small-scale growers. Obviously, every market and farmer may not be a fit for each other, but more must be done to expand market opportunities for small- and mid-sized farms selling into local and regional markets.
The Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) is a federal program well suited to meet this need. It includes the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, or FMLFPP (which helps build and expand direct-to-consumer markets), the Value-Added Producer Grants Program (which helps farmers establish value-added enterprises) and the Regional Food Systems Partnership Program (which focuses on multi-stakeholder, public-private partnerships). The next Farm Bill should expand access to LAMP by increasing its total mandatory funding, reducing matching requirements for farmers or organizations under a certain threshold annual income/budget, and creating “turnkey” grants with a simplified application process. Congress should also support direct market access for farmers by appropriating funds for infrastructure improvements at farmers markets, including updating payment systems.
Both local farmers and their food-insecure neighbors benefit when they are connected through local marketplaces. The next Farm Bill should work to strengthen the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Farmers Market Nutrition Program, providing increased funding and benefits levels for these important programs that give food-insecure seniors and families access to fresh, local food. It should also provide technical assistance as market adopt electronic benefits models while prioritizing access for those using paper checks as those new systems are implemented.
The Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive is another important program that helps connect food insecure community members with local farmers by providing “double bucks” matching funding to help shoppers afford high-quality fresh local food, and the Farm Bill should increase funding for the program. Likewise, it should restore full funding to the Community Food Projects grant program, which funds community-led projects to promote self-sufficiency and increase food security in low-income communities.
One way to simultaneously support local and regional food systems and provide healthier, fresher food options for people experiencing food insecurity is to improve procurement guidelines and practices for institutional buyers, including emergency food system buyers. Building on the success of the first two rounds of the Farmers to Families Food Box program, Congress should direct to USDA build a procurement partnership between emergency feeding organizations and local food systems, prioritizing values beyond lowest-cost bids, and prioritizing sourcing from socially disadvantaged farmers, beginning farmers, and small and mid-sized farms. Congress should also simplify and improve the guidelines to make it easier for school food purchasers to specify “geographic preference,” aka local suppliers, and add language to allow and encourage school purchasers to consider both sustainability and equity in their purchasing decisions.
RAFI-USA supports the principle of food as a human right. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), is a crucial program for supporting that right. Prior to March 2020, SNAP participation and spending were on a gradual decline— however, since the pandemic, SNAP participation increased by nearly 5 million participants. As a response to this need, Congress increased funding for SNAP, WIC, and other emergency feeding programs.4 Meanwhile, the inflation rate has risen to 7.1% and workers’ wages cannot keep up at a 4.5% growth rate.5 While funding from pandemic-related bills was certainly needed, funding from the Farm Bill to support SNAP needs to meet the ongoing and consistent demands of our economic reality. RAFI-USA opposes cuts to the program and attempts to condition assistance on tighter work requirements that may not be possible for recipients to meet. RAFI-USA also opposes any attempt to decouple SNAP from the Farm Bill.
Additionally, the Farm Bill should also transition Puerto Rico from the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) to SNAP. NAP is a federal block grant, which results in inconsistent and lower benefit levels for recipients, and it has no equivalent to Disaster SNAP, leaving Puerto Rico waiting on Congressional action for months after disasters. Puerto Rico must be included in SNAP in the next Farm Bill.
1 See page 26 of the Organic Seed Alliance’s public comment on seed intellectual property.
2 The 2501 program, officially called the “Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program,” was created to help underserved farmers, ranchers, and foresters, who have historically experienced limited access to USDA programs and services.
3 USDA and Congress use the term “socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher” in many laws and regulations. While RAFI-USA finds the term itself to be problematic, we use it throughout this platform and in our policy work generally to reference existing laws and regulations. There are multiple legal definitions. RAFI-USA supports the definition found in 7 U.S. Code § 2279 (a) (5) and (6): The term “socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher” means a farmer or rancher who is a member of a socially disadvantaged group. The term “socially disadvantaged group” means a group whose members have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity as members of a group without regard to their individual qualities.