RAFI-USA’s approach to policy advocacy has always hinged on the foundational importance of the work we do directly with farmers. In 2020, in response to the pandemic and based on what we were hearing from farmers, RAFI-USA advocated for relief for farmers and food system workers in COVID-19 aid packages, helped farmers access that aid and shared feedback with USDA on how to improve aid programs, and worked in solidarity with farmworker and processing workers efforts.
In 2021, as farmers and food system workers continue to cope with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, RAFI-USA will continue to push for both legislative and administrative action to advance our policy priorities, which include:
Build infrastructure for local and regional food systems
The issue: COVID-19 resulted in a sudden increase in food insecurity as well as dramatic supply chain disruptions which caused national shortages and empty grocery store shelves. Local farmers, food banks, and food pantries stepped up to fill in the gaps, but in some cases, were prevented from having a greater impact. This was due to a lack of infrastructure for processing, storing, and transporting their products.
Farmers had products to sell and customers who were looking for alternative grocery sources. However, the intermediate links of the local food supply chain — storage, refrigeration, processing, and transportation — were lacking. Small-scale livestock producers faced wait times of several months to over a year to get their animals processed.
RAFI-USA supports policies that invest in the infrastructure that will allow local and regional food systems’ supply chains to meet demand and respond to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic or climate-driven disruptions. Adaptable, community-based food businesses and infrastructure will help support local economies in the midst of crises by keeping money circulating locally. Congress and the Biden Administration should:
- Fund infrastructure investments in storage, refrigeration, and transportation for farmers and emergency food providers to help them supply fresh, local products to members of their community, directly or through local marketplaces, during crises and beyond.
- Support independent livestock producers by expanding small independent meat processing. RAFI-USA supports the Strengthening Local Processing Act, which increases options for local livestock and poultry producers and assists smaller facilities as they adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and expanded customer demand.
- Make fresh, local products more accessible for SNAP recipients. RAFI-USA supports the Expanding SNAP Options Act, which would result in the creation of a universal online and app-based portal allowing farmers and SNAP recipients to connect via online sales.
- Allocate funding that supports farmers transitioning out of industrial animal agriculture operations and into local, regional food production operations that support a more resilient food system.
Create equity in the food system
The issue: Beginning with the theft of native land and the enslavement of kidnapped Africans, the current U.S. food system is built on centuries of racial injustice, a legacy that continues today. Following a century of discrimination by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), predatory lending, lack of access to credit, and poor loan servicing, there was a 98% loss of Black farm operations between 1900 and 19971. Additionally, much of our agricultural system is still based on the exploited labor of those whom our federal policies have made vulnerable.
In addition to direct racial discrimination at USDA — proven and yet inadequately addressed by lawsuits like Pigford vs. Glickman — one result of these actions is that farms owned by farmers of color are now smaller on average compared to white-owned farms, as well as fewer in number. This means that USDA programs that structurally favor larger farms also continue to perpetuate existing racial disparities.
Under our current immigration policy, the migrants who make our food system possible are vulnerable to economic exploitation, which endangers their wellbeing. The H2A agricultural worker program puts all the power in the hands of employers. Workers who lack required documentation are even more vulnerable when speaking up. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this led to situations in which the workplace conditions of farmworkers or meatpacking workers put them at heightened risk for illness and death, as managers placed bets on how many workers would get sick2 and companies pressed for faster line speeds3. State and federal agencies charged with protecting the rights and safety of workers took little or no action in response to worker complaints.
In partnership with the many organization representing food system workers, RAFI-USA supports the following policies to address racial discrimination and worker rights in the food system.
- Pass the Justice for Black Farmers Act. This bill would begin to address the centuries of discrimination experienced by Black farmers, and bring additional accountability to USDA.
- USDA must implement measures to bring accountability to agencies like the Farm Services Agency (FSA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and National Appeals Division (NAD), including but not limited to:
- Timely federal-level review of denied FSA loan applications, withdrawn loan applications, and withdrawn NAD appeals.
- Annual discrimination review of an FSA loan officer’s loan portfolio.
- Equitable relief for farmers who are found to be erroneously denied credit with FSA. The equitable relief would compensate farmers for their lost farming revenue and any consequential losses.
- Review and change the NAD administrative judge performance evaluation process to remove NAD appeal outcomes from evaluation criteria.
- A report analyzing the past five years of FSA application time to completion, broken down by race, gender, and within race/gender.
- Accurate and comprehensive collection of demographic data (including race/ethnicity and gender), self-certified by the farmer, across all USDA programs to determine whether USDA resources are being distributed equitably
- Ensure set-asides for BIPOC farmers in all USDA funding opportunities and prioritize the outreach necessary to ensure that BIPOC farmers can take advantage of them.
- OSHA should issue an emergency temporary standard for worker protection during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Immediately halt the issuance of waivers allowing meatpacking and processing companies to increase line speeds in the poultry, pork, and beef processing industries.
Equitably distribute COVID-19 relief and other federal resources
The issue: Small farms and farmers of color were largely left out of many iterations of COVID-19 relief.
USDA by default tends to build programs for large-scale commodity crop producers, and this was no different for COVID-19 relief. The first rounds of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments explicitly or practically excluded contract poultry producers and diversified vegetable farmers. The Farmers to Families Food Box program got off to a promising start, but the third and fourth rounds bypassed small, local producers for larger-scale producers4. The first rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) did not fit the business structure of many farms, and also were used up by the fastest applicants — borrowers without existing accounts with lenders were left out in the cold. CFAP applications were automatically counting farmers as white and male if the data wasn’t filled in, making it impossible to accurately track the racial equity impacts of how aid was distributed.
Low-wage food system workers in general were classified as “essential” without receiving essential PPE, essential healthcare, or essential living wages. Workers who lack required documentation cannot access many social supports (even while paying taxes), leaving them exposed when facing the prospect of losing their jobs.
The Biden administration has taken some initial encouraging steps to address these problems. RAFI-USA will continue to fight for equitable distribution of COVID-19 relief. Our priorities include:
- Ensure accurate and comprehensive collection of demographic data (including race/ethnicity and gender) self-certified by the farmer, across all COVID-19 relief programs to determine whether federal resources are being distributed equitably.
- Ensure that COVID-19 relief is not used to pad giant corporations’ profits but instead is going to family farmers and small businesses.
- Provide debt relief for small farmers and BIPOC farmers facing the multi-year crises of racial discrimination, low prices, climate disasters, and the COVID-19 pandemic. RAFI-USA supports the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act and the Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act.
- Support equitable outreach efforts for COVID-19 aid programs. Provide implementation feedback to the agency when necessary to ensure all farmers are able to access funding opportunities.
- Those with an ITIN should be eligible for COVID relief payments.
Reverse the trends of farm loss and consolidation in agriculture
The issue: The twin trends of farm loss and agricultural consolidation have gutted community food sovereignty, farmer independence, and rural prosperity.
In the words of the previous Secretary of Agriculture, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” Years of USDA policy and lax antitrust enforcement have driven the twin trends of agribusiness concentration5 and farm loss/consolidation6, leaving small farmers increasingly indebted and over-leveraged, stuck in unfair contracts, and paying higher input costs while receiving lower prices for their products. Meatpacking integrator companies, seed companies, and other agribusinesses own ever-greater shares of markets and take advantage of unofficial government subsidies like guaranteed loans, driving a model of agriculture which reduces farmers and workers to units of production rather than independent stewards of the land.
RAFI-USA supports policies which hold corporations accountable for their anti-competitive actions, support farmers’ ability to be climate leaders, transform the agricultural credit system into one that invests in farmers instead of making money off of them, and pay farmers fair prices.
- Hold corporations accountable for their unfair and anti-competitive actions:
- Reinstate the Packers and Stockyards Administration (PSA) as a stand-alone agency within USDA.
- Reverse and re-issue the Undue Preference rule to create a strong protection standard for farmers.
- Clarify that “competitive injury” is unnecessary to bring a PSA claim.
- Strengthen antitrust enforcement in the agricultural sector.
- Reform federal government loan guarantees to support innovation, rather than corporate-controlled food systems.
- Reinvest in public plant cultivar and animal-breeding programs with a focus on regional adaptation. Unless action is taken quickly, we stand to lose both agricultural diversity of seeds and breeds and our capacity for public variety development. USDA should invest $100 million annually through its competitive grants research programs to significantly expand resources for public cultivar and animal breed development to ensure that farmers have access to seeds and breeds that are regionally adapted to changing climates and to optimize production using climate-smart farming systems.
- Ensure that Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding prioritizes sustainable farming practices and small-scale farm operations, such as soil health, high tunnels, and climate mitigation practices like cover crops7.
- USDA should issue guidance that 100% collateralization is sufficient for loans. Farmers need access to credit, but loans are often over-collateralized or larger than they need to be, putting all a farmer’s assets — and often their homes — at risk.
- Pass legislation to allow greater flexibility for farmers who have borrowed from FSA to defer payments, reduce interest rates, modify loan terms, and allow refinancing as an eligible purpose for FSA loans.
- Prevent the turnover of land from family farmers to corporate agribusiness, investors, or extractive industries.
- Ensure fair farmgate price floors for farmers which take into account their costs of production, their hard work, and the public service they provide, as detailed in the Disparity to Parity Campaign to restore supply management and parity pricing.
RAFI-USA also knows that addressing climate change is a matter of survival for all of us. When disaster programs become a regular part of the agricultural policy routine, it is an indicator of how common climate disasters are and the impact they have on farmers. RAFI-USA believes that farmers have an important role to play in climate change mitigation and adaptation. As Congress and the Biden administration debate the next steps for addressing the climate crisis, RAFI-USA will assess proposed solutions by their potential effectiveness for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building soil health, as well as how they impact the priorities listed above.
1 Returning African American Farmers to the Land: Recent Trends and a Policy Rationale, by Spencer D. Wood & Jess Gilbert