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Food & Farm Act: Our Best Hope for Healthy Food, Farms and Soil

You’ve heard it said before: No Farms, No Food.

But let’s not forget: No Soil, No Farms.

A few years ago, the United Nations warned that on average, the world has fewer than 60 growing seasons left. That grim statistic is based on how rapidly the world’s soils are be degraded, in large part due to poor management.

The situation looks bleak for our soils—and just as bad for our farmers. So bad, that experts compare the current situation to the 1980s when bankruptcies and foreclosures contributed to the loss of 296,360 farms.

These are disturbing trends. But it’s not too late to turn things around, assuming we take the necessary steps.

This year, Congress will pass the Farm Bill, legislation that determines how $90 billion per year is used to shape our food system.

Congress could continue with business as usual, directing funding to the wealthiest farmers growing genetically engineered pesticide-drenched industrial monocultures that tear up our best soil to produce crops that get burned in car engines, fed to animals in factory farms or processed into diabetes-inducing junk foods.

Or, this year, the Farm Bill could go in a new direction. That’s what Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) is proposing with his version of the Farm Bill, the Food & Farm Act.

No farms, no food

We should all be concerned about what Farm Aid calls the “Looming Crisis on American Farms.” Even the Wall Street Journal is ringing alarm bells, warning that “The Next American Farm Bust Is Upon Us.”

Compared with the 1980s farm crisis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) chief economist Rob Johansson warned in his just-released 2018 forecast that “current levels of debt are approaching the levels we saw back in the 1980s.”

During the 1980s, bankruptcies and foreclosures contributed to the loss of 296,360 farms (there were 2.4 million farms in 1980 and only 2.1 million by 1990).

In 2015-2016, the U.S. lost 8,000 farms and a million acres of farmland.

More farm losses are expected, as farm debt increases, and farm incomes stay low.

Net farm income has declined 52 percent since 2013, and is expected to remain flat over the next 10 years.

In 2018, inflation-adjusted net farm income is expected to drop to the lowest level since 2002. In 2018, the projected medium farm income is -$1,316 per household.

In real terms, this means most farmers lose money growing our food.

There’s a direct correlation between farm economics and farmer mental health.

The current economic pressures are why the suicide death rate for farmers is more than double that of military veterans.

No soil, no farms

As important as it is to keep farmers on the land and protect farmland from development, there’s another urgent food security crisis looming: soil loss. 

In the U.S., soil disappears 10 times faster than it is naturally replenished, causing a $44-billion loss in annual productivity. More than 50 percent of America’s topsoil has already eroded.

The United Nations warns that if current rates of degradation continue, all of the world's topsoil could be gone by 2075.

Help for farmers

Blumenauer’s Food & Farm Act would provide relief to the family farmers who could lose their farms because they’re having to go into debt producing our food.

Here are some of the ways the bill would help farmers:

  • Establish a Land Tenure Commission at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as tax-credits, loan, grants and training, to preserve family farms, protect farm land from development and increase access to land for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
  • Expand the Whole Farm Revenue Option to make subsidized crop insurance an effective safety net available to all farms, including organic and diversified family farms. (To make crop insurance available to the family farms that need it most, the Food & Farm Act eliminates the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage Programs, limits total subsidies to $125,000 per year and caps payments for farmers with incomes above $500,000).
  • Implement the Farmer Fair Practice regulations that protect small farmers from retaliation by requiring the USDA to crack down on unfair and anti-competitive business practices from big meat and poultry processors.
  • Develop market opportunities for family farms. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program would be opened to farmers who comply with federal organic regulations and those who are transitioning to organic. The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program would provide more support for states that grow and market a diverse array of fruits and vegetables. Rural Development funding would be used to expand programs that connect demand for local food in urban areas with supply from local farmers and boost funding for meat and poultry processing infrastructure.

The Food & Farm Act would also help farmers improve the long-term economic viability of their farms by giving them the training and support they need to reduce erosion and build soil. The bill would accomplish this by:

  • Extending crop insurance to farmers who reduce erosion. Farmers who plant erosion-reducing cover crops would qualify for crop insurance premium subsidies. The bill would prohibit farmers from receiving subsidies if they plant on unsuitable land.
  • Requiring all farmers receiving farm subsidies to comply with soil conservation requirements.

The Food & Farm Act represents our best hope for saving our farmers, farms and soil. But this bill won’t stand a chance unless Congress gets behind it. Please ask your member of Congress to support it.

Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Sign up here for news and alerts from OCA.

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