Putting on Your Policy Wonk Pants for Food’s Sake!

AH, THE VERY BASICS

Nutrition and food system policies are enacted through a web of interactions between administrative or legislative policymakers at the local, state and national levels and citizens and groups of citizens that hold stake in a particular issue.

In Community Nutrition In Action, the process is described pictorially …

… and is guided by changes in attitudes and levels of involvement among policy-making participants.  The textbook emphasizes this point that this is a dynamic process in a chapter titled The Art and Science of Policy Making.  “Policies in the food and nutrition arena will continue to evolve as our knowledge of foods and their relationship to health expands and the issues of public concern change.”  Several examples of federal agencies that enact policies to address the plate tectonic movements of food and nutrition issues are the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture.  Coalitions of organizations in the business and non-profit worlds are aligned to influence these agencies, and the legislators that hold purse strings.  These coalitions affect one or more circles within the policy making model above.  And they’re not static either.  Individual organizations or their coalitions make shifts depending on their effectiveness in promoting policy change and whether they’re in it for the long haul.  That is, for policy evaluation and reformation.

Policies are evaluated from many different angles.  One policy that’s drawn my ear to the soil was released for public consumption by the Department of Agriculture last month.  It’s called the Land Contract Guarantee Program, and it’s detailed in this statement by the Farm Service Agency (FSA).  FSA logoEvidently the program had several precursors (in 2002 and again in 2010), which is a testament to the severity of the problem that’s been defined.  It’s undoubtedly also a testament to the lobbyists in organizations like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition as well as the legislators and administrators at the federal level who have, seeing its merit, worked to expand it.

This program, as previously mentioned, is an example of a policy that was implemented on a smaller scale, and apparently passed what you might call the seedling (or evaluation) stage.  One online source (I’m having trouble backtracking to find and link to it) spoke disparagingly about the outcome of one of the pilot projects.  The good news: they portrayed the FSA’s response to the program, and its advertising as something about as effective as a dude with a sandwich board on Main Street.  Luckily, it seems, the agency has gotten the message this go-round.  Take a quick gander at a google search for the program.  The word is spreading.  Not to mention, loan officers are now allowed to take into account more than just experience when distributing guarantees.

How does this fit into the policy action model and which steps have been actualized to date?  Here’s my analysis …

Step One: PROBLEM DEFINITION

The food system is greying. And the vitality of family farms is jeopardized by the average age of farmers and ranchers in the United States: 57.  Organizations like the Future Farmers of America (FFA) perceive the challenge of assisting the transition of land ownership from one generation to the next, and turn tail (as evidenced by the interview linked above).  They see themselves as the saviors of a nourished universe.  And they’ve defined several thorns in their vision for American agriculture.

One is that farmscapes, as highly capitalized businesses, are out of reach of people who share an interest in purchasing them but have meager access to the credit offered by traditional lenders.

Riley Pagett, National FFA President

In response to this crisis, the FFA’s current leadership has confidently articulated the interesting priority of connecting the next generation to careers “in biotechnologies and other support systems in agriculture.”  Riley Pagget’s position brings images of a poorly spirited soccer player who consciously employs deception – lobbying hard for penalty, faking an injury at this turn and that, abandoning ship on a stretcher, and ultimately leaving behind collaborators in a final act of ill-natured dissent.  All of these actions demonstrate – to me – either an intriguing brand of cowardice or the absolute inability to bring the problems our generation faces into focus.  I just don’t can’t tell which it is …

Step Two: AGENDA SETTING  

Under the oversight of Secretary Vilsack, the USDA has reacted differently than the supposed leaders of the young farming community.  His focus has been to tweak and scale up existing models of government assistance that support new farmers in an effort to catalyze more progress.  And, no doubt, informed by more than 1,000 young farmers (surveyed by the National Young Farmers’ Coalition), the pieces of an agenda began to fall in place.

The NYFC reported the following findings in “Building A Future With Farmers”:

  • 78% of farmers ranked “lack of capital” as a top challenge for beginners, with another 40% ranking “access to credit” as the biggest challenge.
  • 68% of farmers ranked land access as the biggest challenge faced by beginners.
  • 70% of farmers under 30 rented land, as compared to 37% of farmers over 30.
  • 74% of farmers ranked apprenticeships as among the most valuable programs for beginners.
  • 55% of farmers ranked local partnerships as one of the most valuable programs, and 49% ranked Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) as a top program.

The real nitty gritty of their report was on page 30, where they used the results of the survey to lay out policy recommondations for congress and the President, states, and “you and your community” to propel young farmers.

Step Three: POLICY DEVELOPMENT

The recently released Land Contract Guarantee Program includes little ditties for people like me who’ve yet to step out of the shadows of the College of Agriculture and on-the-job trainings in the form of farm apprenticeships and/or practicums.  We are eligible, as farmers were in the pilot states, for two forms of support …

  1. Prompt Payment Guarantee: A guarantee of up to the amount of three amortized annual installments plus the cost of any related real estate taxes and insurance; or
  2. Standard Guarantee: A guarantee of 90 percent of the outstanding principal balance under the land contract.

… But the language governing who is eligible seems to have changed in order to bring more people under the farming tent.  The Farm Service Agency, which administers loans, is now allowed, legally, to take many factors into account.  Moscow, Idaho’s first generation farmer Marci Miller is now eligible for credit, as long as she and her hubby convince an old-timer that the land contract options described above fit into his/her holistic goal more succinctly than a deal with a real estate agent.  Miller must also meet these criteria:

The buyer of the farm or ranch must be a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher; not be larger than a family farm (in which most of the management and labor is provided by family members); have an acceptable credit history demonstrated by satisfactory debt repayment; be the owner or operator of the farm or ranch when the contract is complete; and be unable to obtain sufficient credit elsewhere without a guarantee to finance actual needs at reasonable rates or terms.

These clearly defined parameters gives non-profit programs like Western Montana’s Community Food and Agriculture Coalition’s Land Link, as well as FSA agents, a population to channel their efforts.

It’s clear that the work of Severine vT. Fleming in producing The Greenhorns (see a trailer here) and its complement, a weekly radio program on the dreams and struggles of the young farmer community, have been influential rallying cries.  These cries have worked in tandem with the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, transmitting stories and helping to grow the third leg of the “iron triangle” of policy development.  That is, the interest groups, congressional committees or subcommittees, and administrative agencies.  Together, these legs of public policy – from education at state schools to loan guarantees – are beginning to stroll for young farmers like Marci Miller, who explains her pathway into farming:

We started apprenticing on organic farms – my partner Greg and I – when we were still in college.  We took some academic courses in agricultural entrepreneurship, which (helped us figure) out what we wanted to do and how we were going to get there.  We apprenticed at both the University of Idaho … and the Washington State Univerisity (organic farms) and both of those were great introductions into vegetable production … On top of that (we continued) to educate ourselves and take courses through County Extension and through another local non-profit called Rural Roots … We’re actually enrolled in a course called “Planning For Profit,” and it’s just for small-scale farmers who are looking at different enterprises or expanding enterprises they are currently involved in.  So education has been really key for us.

Step Four: IMPLEMENTATION

Beginning and disadvantaged farmers are one call/visit/email away from seeing that this policy is implemented (i.e. receiving support from their local FSA farm loan manager).  I have plans to contact Fred Smith, the manager working in Lake County, where I’m pursuing farm ownership.  This document is a living representation of how a program is implemented.  The umbrella department – in this case the USDA – puts out word to sub-departments like the FSA, instructing agents of the policy who interpret documents like this (including the handy dandy powerpoint links) and direct actions accordingly.  Their actions to promote the program and work with beginning or disadvantaged farmers/ranchers could shift the values and ecosystem designs of producers who make up the food system as the current class of landowners formalize agreements with the next generation and welcome the Land Contract Guarantee Program’s incentives.  Unfortunately we won’t see the policy’s effect until it’s fully implemented and evaluated for its efficacy in all 50 states.

Stepping Back:

HOW COULD UPPING THE EYES-TO-ACRE RATIO 

IMPACT THE HEALTH CARE SYSTEM?

Look at this image from a North Carolina Crop Mob – from the wheelbarrow load in the foreground to the conversations about soil processes OR direct marketing of raspberries (?) to consumers in the back-40.  The entire scene reminds me of a field of ruminants.  You know how there seems to be one cow who’s ready to meet your gaze, and to watch over the herd’s interest.  The same animal doesn’t give you the stink eye throughout the day.  But there’s always one or two that take on this role.  To me, the eye-locking that appears in the background tells a similar story.

This is agri-CULTURE at its finest.  Bodies moving, and a collection of minds actively devoted to improving the food system our generation has inherited.

The good Lord of food knows they eat well.

And I’d assume they have better relationships with food than their cubicle counterparts.  They may even know how to prepare simple, healthful meals!  My point is not to draw attention away from other meaningful policy proposals outlined in chapter 6 of Community Nutrition in Action.  The authors point out, rightly I think, that the health of this nation isn’t served by fortune cookies with one liners like “cost containment” and “universal access.”  Health and preventative care are, instead, linked to our diets.  And in order to improve society’s diet, “a coordinated strategy for health care, political will, and active collaboration of both health care professionals and consumers of health care services will be required.” As they put it, our system lacks the necessary behind-the-scenes work:

Community nutritionists need to educate the payers of health care about the inherent value of including nutrition services in their policies.  In arguing for reimbursable nutrition services, highlight its benefits:

  • Nutrition services are attractive, progressive health benefits that are relatively inexpensive compared with other types of benefits.
  • Nutrition services benefits enhance the insurance product (the employee benefit package).
  • Nutrition services have a preventive component (they help keep employees healthy)
  • Nutrition services attract healthy subscribers.
  • Nutrition services are manageable – they can be easily documented.
  • Nutrition services help patients become more self-reliant by helping them fight disease, avoid hospitalization, and reduce the use of other, more expensive medical therapies.
  • Nutrition care speeds recovery.

 But for food’s sake, how many of the lads and lasses pictured above – would you imagine – will develop cardiovascular disease or obesity?

We won’t know until the next National Young Farmers’ Coalition survey on health and farmers, sure … or until we become a nation of farmers again, and national health assessments reflect a farmer’s diet.  But I submit that it’s not just farmers that eat well when the USDA initiates policies that invest in new family farms.  Communities that provide many food access points for consumers and processing outfits for producers will also benefit, now and into a future that won’t exactly look upon mono-cultures, CAFO’s, or other high-input systems with a glowing expression.

That is, as long as the young farmer friends I know and love, and the ones I’ve listened to weekly on The Greenhorns Podcast, are representative of the new agriculturalists who aspire to cultivate small-to-medium scale pastures across the country, then there is a powerful movement building from an unshakable foundation; a foundation that seeks to improve the way humans relate to nutrition and the sustainability of agroecosystems.  If you aren’t convinced, I suggest you read this manifesto by Trace Ramsey, which journals how many of us are pulling a string that’s attached to a lightbulb … finally …

Farming was at best some idyllic retirement scheme, never a seriously considered career possibility.

But then something happened. In the previously steady route of our lives, a shift occurred. The soil moved under us somehow, got stuck in the creases of our pants, in the ridges of our shoes, in the lines of our palms. Suddenly white picket fences, situation comedies and mutual fund returns didn’t seem so interesting anymore. The big ball game and the driving range became distractions from the reality of a new love affair. We got hooked on the possibilities of growing our own food and also providing that food to others.

The epiphany was likely different for many of us. Maybe a friend took us to a farmers’ market. Maybe someone had a plate of local hamburgers or collards at a picnic. Maybe the news of some global food disaster made us question the monocultures piled high on our plates. Maybe a real life farmer entered our life.

For a few of us, those with farming in our past – a childhood spent in the fields of the big farms or the family plots, throwing rocks into the hedgerows for little or no pay or watching over milking machines in the stench of industrial sized barns – there was no love, no kind of encouragement, no appreciation for our part in the dynamics of food production. We were simply limbs and calluses then, small gears in a giant cranking clock. We left the farm to pursue something else only to be pulled back hard when it became apparent that we could abandon everything that farming once meant to us. We could make it ours.

Still others came to farming from DIY and anti-authoritarian backgrounds, building urban community gardens or putting up food in anarchist collectives. Gardening always had a community aspect to it, but we wanted something more. We knew that we could do the work, that we had the right vision and skills. We just needed the access and the resources to get started. 

A B&W of Trace Ramsey Himself

If this passage is the least bit genuine, programs like the Land Contract Guarantee Program have the power to transform this food system.  They won’t do so without a little commitment to hard labor, but by ensuring that an intelligent crew of kale and kamut growers have access to soil … and channel that access ethos into their distribution model, marketing whole foods through regional networks at least semi-directly to eaters.

2 thoughts on “Putting on Your Policy Wonk Pants for Food’s Sake!

    • You’re welcome!

      I couldn’t help but notice your posts on the land contracts subject … and after checking out yer twitter-feed (the first one I’ve ever tapped into), I’m definitely interested in engaging more with NSAC’s work. Are any positions opening up for Western reps? :)

      Oh, here’s something I’ve been curious about: Do you see the USDA Value Added Producer Grants continuing in the next few years? I have a vision for a cooperative kimchi processing project that could be formed between a few other farmers in the Flathead Valley in Montana (in part because most of the traditional, raw produce types can be reliably grown but also because there’s a killer processing arena in Ronan), where I hope to form a land contract beginning in 2013.

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