RAFI-USA’s approach to policy advocacy has always hinged on the foundational importance of the work we do directly with farmers and rural stakeholders. All of the policy issues we pursue emerge from that work, and the priorities below are a reflection of the needs which have surfaced from it. There are many other issues related to our food and agriculture system which we at RAFI-USA believe to be important, but where we are not working directly with impacted stakeholders. For those issues, we try to support partner organizations that are leading in those areas. We are grateful to be part of a broad movement that incorporates the wisdom and work of many.
Our Priorities in 2022
RAFI-USA works primarily at the federal level, both to get farmer-favorable laws passed in Congress and to advocate for actions the administration can take without legislation to help farmers.
Many important things will be happening on the policy front in 2022. Our current Farm Bill, signed in 2018, will expire in 2023, and the process for drafting a new one begins this year. There will also be lots of implementation work to do, making sure that funds appropriated for a variety of agriculture and food programs get to the places they are most needed. And, of course, our decades-long fight for fair rules to protect contract farmers will continue with the publication of draft Packers & Stockyards Act rules.
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Equitable Access to Credit
The issue: Farmers need loans to begin, operate, and grow, but agricultural credit systems do not equitably serve BIPOC farmers, small farmers, beginning farmers, or farmers with diversified production.
Access to credit and fair loan servicing can make or break a farm. Unfortunately, the history of both USDA and private lending in agriculture is one of systemic discrimination against farmers of color. In some cases, this looked like denying loans to qualified applicants; in others, it manifested as poor loan servicing or predatory lending. Following a century of these practices, there was a 98% loss of Black farm operations between 1900 and 1997. 1 An attempt in the American Rescue Plan to begin to rectify some of this harm with debt relief for BIPOC farmers has been stalled by lawsuits, and BIPOC farmers who were promised — and may have planned on — this debt relief, have no assurance that it will come. Some are now struggling to keep their farms.
Additionally, for decades USDA programs have been built for commodity crop agriculture and pushed farmers to “get big or get out.” The result of this has been that the biggest farms get bigger, mid-scale farms struggle to compete and get pushed out, and small farms cannot benefit meaningfully from programs that were never built for them. Because farms owned by farmers of color are smaller on average than white-owned farms, providing equal access to resources for small farms is also a racial equity issue.
In 2022 RAFI-USA will support the following policy priorities to increase equitable access to credit:
- Administrative and congressional actions to ensure that no BIPOC farmer who was promised debt relief by USDA loses their farm.
- Congressional and administrative reforms to:
- Eliminate opportunities in the loan application process for loan officers to exercise discretion in a discriminatory way to deny or delay an application.
- Make the National Appeals Division (NAD) process faster and more accessible for farmers.
- Ensure that the Farm Services Agency’s programs, policies, and staff serve small farmers and beginning farmers with as much commitment and access as large, established farms.
- Enable farmers who have received past write-downs2 of USDA debt to become eligible for future USDA programs (which they are currently barred from).
- Prevent the over-collateralization of loans (one frequent method of discrimination) which can needlessly endanger a farmer’s land and home.
- Expand eligibility for equitable relief and ensure a farmer can appeal equitable relief decisions to NAD.
Local and Regional Supply Chain Resilience
The issue: Small- and mid-scale farms can implement resilience practices on-farm, but also need to be part of a larger resilient local and regional supply chain to thrive. This infrastructure has been hollowed out over the decades as giant corporations have bought up smaller local companies and concentrated their control.
Supply chains owned by hyper-consolidated agriculture corporations treat our communities as resources from which value can be extracted. Those supply chains foundered during the pandemic3, putting lives and livelihoods at risk4; and those giant corporations are now making record profits while paying farmers less and charging consumers more.56
We can choose a different path; by investing in local and regional supply chains, we invest in our communities and our future. Farmers are resourceful and creative. We saw how local farmers responded to the pandemic, seeking new ways of marketing their products safely and looking for ways to feed people in their community.7 Stronger local and regional supply chain infrastructure will create an environment where farmers have access to the processing, storage, transportation, and marketing they need in order to thrive and feed their local communities. Local and regional supply chains keep money circulating locally, providing prosperity, opportunity, and growth for both rural and urban areas. To ensure equitable access to this prosperity and the opportunity to own food system assets and capital, federal programs must invest with a deliberate focus on serving those who have been ignored or shut out previously because of race/ethnicity, gender, and/or other identities.
In 2022, RAFI-USA will support local and regional supply chain resilience by:
- Tracking the implementation of the federal funds that have been appropriated for local and regional supply chain resilience to ensure those funds are equitably invested and will support historically underserved producers, small farms, and local economies; including programs such as:
- Meat and Poultry Processing: USDA announced its intent to invest $500 million in American Rescue Plan funds to expand meat and poultry processing capacity, with $150 million of that going to existing small and very small processing facilities.
- The Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP): on March 1, 2022, USDA announced $130 million of supplemental funding over two years for LAMP.
- Other pandemic-related programs.
- Improving laws and regulations on processing and procurement so that they are scale-appropriate for smaller, local farms and businesses and don’t advantage giant companies.
- In our Farm Bill advocacy, bringing an increased focus on equity to programs that serve local and regional food systems so that more BIPOC-led and serving organizations can access funding and be supported through their projects.
Finalizing & Implementing Strong Packers & Stockyards Rules
The issue: Farmers and ranchers need USDA to implement stronger Packers & Stockyards Act (PSA) enforcement rules, which mandate fair competition standards in the livestock industry and protect farmers, ranchers, and growers from corporate power abuses by massive meatpacking corporations.
We all want a chance to earn a fair living in exchange for doing work that we take pride in. For decades, farmers and ranchers have been fighting against unfair corporate practices and extractive contracts that treat food producers and rural communities as disposable. Not even a global pandemic will dissuade the extremely concentrated corporate agriculture industry from continuing to push all the risks of production onto producers while restricting their freedom and leaving the rest of us with a precarious food system. For example, contract poultry growers take on huge debts to build and upgrade their poultry houses but are then stuck in a system with an unreliable income they have little control over, and almost no protections against unfair or retaliatory actions from the “integrator company”8 they contract with. Stronger rules governing corporate practices will help even the scales.
In 2022 RAFI-USA will advocate for the prompt finalization and strenuous enforcement of strengthened Packers and Stockyards Act Rules by the Administration, that:
- Clarify that farmers do not need to prove that an integrator’s conduct towards them harmed the competitiveness of the entire industry in order for it to have violated the Packers & Stockyards Act.
- Ban the poultry “tournament system” or any payment system that bases farmer income on factors outside a farmer’s control.
- Protect farmers’ right to form associations or organize without retaliation.
- Provide protection based on protected class.
- Prohibit corporations from compelling producers to take on more debt to upgrade their poultry houses under threat of contract or revenue loss.
- Clarify that it is unlawful for packers to provide preferential marketing arrangements to large-volume livestock producers over smaller producers.
- Clarify that a company cannot justify abusive conduct on the grounds that it was a “reasonable business decision.”
- Establish methods to continuously review and monitor industry practices to ensure that new practices do not result in violations of the Act.
- Ensure that these protections are robustly enforced by USDA without interference from giant meatpackers’ allies in Congress.
Equitable and Urgent Response to the Climate Crisis
The issue: We must take swift, comprehensive, and committed action to avert the worst impacts of climate change and protect those who are most vulnerable. Farmers can be a part of the solution.
Dramatic action to mitigate climate change is needed if we want to leave a livable world for our children, and it is a problem we must address at all levels of our economy and society.9 However, bad climate policy has the potential to be a windfall for corporate profits, consolidating corporate control of our food system and land, while still not being effective at the mitigation so urgently needed. As agricultural climate policies and solutions are proposed and debated, RAFI-USA will assess those policies based on the following list of values and priorities:
- Climate policy must not replicate the consequences of previous USDA programs which have driven farm consolidation. Policies must guard against being drivers of large-scale land transfer and investment that takes land out of the hands of local farmers and communities. On the contrary, well-designed policy should drive community ownership.
- Resources in programs must be accessible equitably: USDA’s history of discrimination has created a default scenario in which it is harder for BIPOC producers to access programs. This imbalance drives increasing inequity and must be remedied.
- Any physical or informational infrastructure built for these programs must not result in or entrench corporate control of that infrastructure. Farmers should have ownership and control of their data.
- Solutions need to be based on good science and consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate benefits holistically, incorporating both mitigation and resilience practices.
- Programs need to take a whole-farm perspective, rather than focusing on isolated practices. Agencies across USDA and the federal government will need to coordinate so that conservation and climate mitigation best practices are defined, allowed, and rewarded the same way across programs and agencies.
- The urgency of the crisis demands that climate policy cannot be an add-on; our foundational agricultural policy needs to be reformed to prioritize climate-sound agriculture. The climate crisis demands that we advocate for transformative and incremental change simultaneously.
- Real pollution reduction and carbon capture/storage outcome targets must be set at a federal policy level, with accompanying acreage and practice outcome targets, to achieve real emission reductions and capture/storage gains. We anticipate that both support for adopting these practices, and our regulatory framework will have a role to play.
The work to build a thriving, sustainable, and equitable food system is broad. RAFI-USA supports policy changes in these additional areas in a variety of ways. Sometimes we are a supportive member of a coalition making a push in one area. At other times we may provide “sign-on” support for an issue where our values align, but where we do not have a significant stakeholder base to speak to the issue, or where there is already a large, organized movement supporting the issue. We are grateful for all the people, organizations, and elected representatives working for a more just and sustainable future.
- Food as a human right. Nutrition programs like SNAP, the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, and others which ensure people have access to enough food and to high quality, culturally appropriate food, are crucial to support and expand.
- Worker rights. Farmworkers and food processing workers are as integral to our food system as farmers, and all deserve safe working conditions, fair pay, labor protections, and the right to collectively bargain.
- Reforming and Strengthening Antitrust Enforcement. Runaway corporate consolidation in the food system makes our food supply chains less resilient and enables corporate power abuse of farmers, workers and their communities. We need reforms to antitrust laws to crack down on monopsony, and stronger enforcement of those laws to ensure a fair and resilient food system for all.
- Better disaster programs. As climate-driven weather disasters continue to strike, disaster programs need to be flexible, comprehensive, and responsive enough to help farmers get through immediate crises, recover long-term, as well as support mitigation efforts for future disasters.
- Organic agriculture. Organic certification is an important way for farmers to translate their on-farm sustainability practices to a higher price point in the marketplace. RAFI-USA supports policies which maintain the integrity of this standard, make the certification more financially accessible, and invest in research focused on organic production systems.
1 Wood SD, Gilbert J. Returning African American Farmers to the Land: Recent Trends and a Policy Rationale. The Review of Black Political Economy. 2000;27(4):43-64. doi:10.1007/BF02717262
2 Debt write-down is when a lender – in this case, USDA – reduces the amount of debt owed by the borrower as a part of loan servicing/loan restructuring when the borrower is having a hard time making payments.
4 Douglas, L. (2020, April 22). Mapping Covid-19 outbreaks in the food system. Food and Environment Reporting Network. https://thefern.org/2020/04/mapping-covid-19-in-meat-and-food-processing-plants/
5 “Beef Is Expensive. So Why Are Cattle Ranchers Going Bankrupt?” https://mattstoller.substack.com/p/beef-is-expensive-so-why-are-cattle?utm_source=url&s=r
6 “ Recent Data Show Dominant Meat Processing Companies Are Taking Advantage of Market Power to Raise Prices and Grow Profit Margins” https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/blog/2021/12/10/recent-data-show-dominant-meat-processing-companies-are-taking-advantage-of-market-power-to-raise-prices-and-grow-profit-margins/
7 “Will the CSA Boom Survive Beyond the Pandemic?” https://civileats.com/2021/03/10/will-the-csa-boom-survive-beyond-the-pandemic/
8 Giant poultry companies are called “integrators” because they are “vertically integrated”: they control every stage of the supply chain, from feed mills to hatcheries to processing plants.