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The fields of food and agriculture are changing and diversifying in exciting ways. Young and beginning farmers, including many without a background in agriculture, are starting up on the land. The ranks of women and minority farmers are growing. Agriculture is happening in new places, from Brooklyn rooftops to coal transition communities in Appalachia. And even in traditional farming regions, agriculture is beginning to look different: new farm business models and production systems are being piloted with the goals of delivering greater ecological benefits, food security, and economic opportunities to farm families and their surrounding communities.
Yet in the midst of these positive changes, there are persistent challenges. Agriculture is an inherently risky business, subject to the whims of the weather and global markets, and the impacts of climate change take that risk to an entirely new level. A growing and increasingly urban global population will put even more pressure on productive lands. Farm and food businesses can’t operate without access to credit, and even then, margins are slim. Healthy food is difficult to come by in many communities, both urban and rural. Inequities persist all along the food value chain.
These are not issues that can be solved through individual action or marketplace campaigns alone. Government policy plays a fundamental role in determining how we respond to threats to our food system and environment: they dictate who can tap into federal resources, and for what purposes; they influence who has access to food, and of what quality; and they shape how well we address persistent and historical inequities. A strong future for our food and agricultural systems requires leaders with diverse perspectives to shape policies that work for all.
Some progress has been made, but there is much work left to do. While it only represents a small portion of overall funding, the Farm Bill’s inclusion of specialty crops, organic agriculture, local food systems and programs to support socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers has had a meaningful impact. Over the last eight years, USDA has upped its game as well. Initiatives like Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, which coordinated and strengthened the Department’s work with the local food sector, was able to establish funding for season-extending high tunnels for small farms, train federal loan officers to understand and work with new farm and food business models, place farm to school experts in USDA offices around the country, and much more. USDA’s Organic Working Group was similarly pioneering, pushing the institution from the inside to do more data collection, research, outreach and coordination to serve organic producers. And greater attention to healthy food access led USDA to prioritize access projects in areas of persistent poverty for grant funding, support the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, and open the Department’s doors to urban stakeholders who had never interacted with USDA outside of the core nutrition programs.
These were all hard fought victories with laudable outcomes, but the prospects for continued progress are still tenuous. There is a sense among many in the sustainable agriculture community that the most optimistic outcome for the next Farm Bill will be successfully defending the gains already won, not winning anything new, and concern that the fragile coalition that made headway in recent years could fracture or be left fighting over crumbs. There is nervousness that the gains made within USDA – none of which required new authorities from Congress, but which were a product of committed leaders at the Department and stakeholders willing to engage – could be lost. And there are critical debates taking place in other federal departments – EPA, FDA, NOAA, Centers for Disease Control and more — as well as in state and international agencies where the sustainable agriculture community is not yet at the table.
Despite growing interest in agriculture among a historically diverse set of stakeholders, their voices are not yet being heard in Washington. There is a growing awareness among those stakeholders that policy matters. And then comes the question: How do we have an impact?
Recent gains in the policy arena are built on decades of hard, strategic work by a small group of principled
leaders who pushed from within and without to shape farm and food policy. How can we leverage their experience and leadership to develop a deeper bench of future leaders?
To create inclusive, diverse, and strong food systems in the future, we need to invest in a cadre of leaders that brings new voices to the table with sophisticated knowledge of how to advance food and agriculture policy in the public interest. These leaders, both rural and urban, must be equipped with tools that will enable them to protect the gains that have been made and pioneer new approaches to solving complex problems on which the health of our families and the planet
In order to affect policy, one must first understand it. The rising popularity of food studies as an academic discipline reflects a growing interest in the field among young people, but a closer look at these programs suggests that few provide a solid background in food policy. The Master of Science in Food Studies program at one prominent university, for example, cites deep understanding of related public policy as a core objective but offers no courses on public policy in its required core curriculum and appears to offer only two elective courses for which public policy is described as a main component.
Moreover, there is an urgency to serve the many next-generation leaders already engaged in food and agriculture professions but whose effectiveness is bounded by the limits of their policy knowledge. Many of these professionals, for various reasons, are unable to leave the workforce for full-time study and are searching for ways to improve their practice for greater impact.
Growing Passion for Food Systems Work
A growing number of passionate individuals with no background in agriculture are getting involved in food systems work. As but one example, FoodCorps, begun in 2010, now has more than 200 service members in 500 schools, reaching more than 180,000 students; service members generally hail from non-agricultural backgrounds. They see day-today how federal nutrition, procurement and farm to school programs work on the ground. Will they have the tools to leverage their passion, commitment and experience and make long-term change?
Climate Change Policy Interventions
The impacts of climate change are already being felt on the ground by farmers, ranchers, and fishers, while
scientists and technical assistance providers look for ways to reduce the contributions of the agricultural sector to climate change and help producers adapt. While there is a lot of talk about policy interventions, very little is actually happening. How do we make sure varied perspectives inform smart policies that can actually be agreed upon and implemented?
The Next Generation of Farmers
More young and beginning farmers are joining the industry without generational roots on the farm or ranch, or even strong ties to rural areas. In agricultural regions, young people are testing out new approaches to a traditional industry. They experience first-hand how federal farm loan, crop insurance and conservation programs work – or don’t – as they get started. How can a diverse next generation of farmers ensure its voice is heard in policy debates?
Innovation in Rural America
Emerging rural leaders are pioneering new approaches to community economic development, including opportunities to build sustainable food systems. They grapple with federal rural development, business and infrastructure programs as they work to bring products to market and build wealth in rural areas. Will they be at the table to inform policies that support more vibrant, sustainable rural economies?