On March 29, 2022 the final Origin of Livestock (OOL) Rule was at long last instituted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), finally resolving statutory language ambiguities from the 1990 Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) that have been keeping family dairies at a major disadvantage in the organic milk marketplace for years now. The rule goes into full effect one year from that date. While we celebrate a Big Win for organic integrity and the surviving grassroots organic dairy farmers who have long suffered under the loopholes – we need to become even more vigilant going into the future.

On March 29, 2022 the final Origin of Livestock (OOL) Rule was at long last instituted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), finally resolving statutory language ambiguities from the 1990 Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) that have been keeping family dairies at a major disadvantage in the organic milk marketplace for years now. The rule goes into full effect one year from that date. While we celebrate a Big Win for organic integrity and the surviving grassroots organic dairy farmers who have long suffered under the loopholes – we need to become even more vigilant going into the future.

I feel so grateful that our Founder was with us for last year’s 50th Anniversary Celebration of NOFA’s beginnings in 1971. He was featured in Al Johnson’s wonderful NOFA history compilation, “Organic Roots” as well as a panel participant in the ‘Thrilling Tales of Yesteryear” presentation. These Anniversary videos, along with Elizabeth Henderson’s “The Next 50 years of NOFA” are available for viewing at https://nofa.org/nofa-50th/.

Acting through its North America subsidiary at the end of August, Groupe Danone, the multinational corporation and owner of Horizon Organic abruptly cancelled the contracts of 89 of their longtime northeast milk suppliers in Vermont, New York, New Hampshire and Maine – effective by August 2022. Danone’s exit means that over 10 percent of the northeast region’s organic dairy farms will be left without a market since other organic processors have limited capacity to accept new producers. The terminations will further have an acute impact on local economies, community resilience and area environments.

First, some Good News. After years of industrybacked climate change denial and misinformation strategies that included derailing legislation in the Obama era and further impeding advancements under the Trump administration – the federal government is finally stepping forward to address the existential threat of the planet’s irrefutable Climate Emergency. With climate change now set as a full governmental priority, the Biden Administration is also officially recognizing a major role for agriculture in removing displaced carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via soil carbon sequestration practices.

Re: Identifying Barriers in USDA Programs and Services; Advancing Racial Justice and Equity and Support for Underserved Communities at USDA; Docket ID FSA- 2021-0006

Although Interstate NOFA’s policy agenda stretches from soil health and food system justice to GMOs and the implementation of food safety regulations with numerous issues in between, here in the dawn’s early light of a new decade the Policy Committee is dealing more than ever with multiple challenges to organic integrity. Not surprisingly in this scoundrel time, an increasing number of trials have been of the top-down governmental variety. Understanding where we’ve been informs where we’re going – what follows is a more in-depth look at these federal onslaughts and the organic community efforts to thwart them.

By Elizabeth Henderson

In February, a dairy farmer friend sent me a note confiding that a few farmers she knows are living on cereal until their milk checks arrive. Yet, the recently released census of agriculture shows that the number of young farmers is growing even as the average age of farmers also increases, and there are uplifting articles about young Black farmers connecting with the land and enjoying the self-empowerment that comes with being an independent farmer.

Meanwhile, voices are rising about the central role that regenerative and organic farming can play in a Green New Deal, a program to mobilize all possible forces to prevent climate disaster.

How can we make sense of these conflicting currents? What policies and programs will create a just transition for family-scale farmers? What changes will enable farmers to maximize the potential of photosynthesis for putting carbon in the soil to supplement reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in mitigating climate disaster?

Farmers who are constantly worrying about financial viability have little bandwidth for new practices or long-term improvements that take initial investments. As Robert Leonard and Matt Russell noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times:

“Government programs like the current farm bill pit production against conservation, and doing the right thing for the environment is a considerable drain on a farmer’s bank account, especially when so many of them are losing money to low commodity prices and President Trump’s tariffs.”

The farm debt crisis of the 1980s never completely went away and has now resurfaced with a vengeance. In 2017, aggregate farm earnings were half of what they were in 2013 due to vast overproduction of basic commodities, and farm income has not recovered. The North American Free Trade Agreement resulted in the loss of mid-sized and smaller farms in all three signatory countries as integrated production and marketing favored larger farms.

Since 1950, the U.S. has gone from 5.4 million farms to just over 2 million, a loss of more than 3 million farms, with important shifts from many smaller integrated farms to fewer large, more specialized farms that grow even larger. For dairy farms in particular, these have been hard times as illustrated by the losses in the two top dairy states. New York State has lost 20 percent of its dairy farms in the past five years. Wisconsin lost 691 dairy farms in 2018.

While the persistence and shrewd maneuvering of organizations like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Organic Coalition meant that programs that support organic and sustainable farming fared remarkably well in the 2018 Farm Bill, the bulk of the more than 500-page bill carries on with business as usual, even making it easier for big farms to get bigger by failing to cap the payments any one farm can receive and allowing more relatives to cash in on programs in the bill.

Both mainstream parties advocate the neoliberal, free-trade policies that the ever more aggregated seed, food and chemical corporations have imposed upon the U.S. since World War II to the detriment of family-scale farms all over the world. The dairy farmers who got through the winter eating cereal and the new farmers who are eagerly starting out are in urgent need of radical change.

Why is this happening? Political economist and author Eric Holt Giménez would say this is just capitalism working as it is supposed to. Faced with slim margins in the race to cover farm expenses, farmers produce more, and that drives prices down even further. The beneficiaries are the ever-larger corporations that have consolidated their dominance in the food sector. The result? Shoppers pay more, and a shrinking portion of what they pay goes to farmers.

At first, this mainly hit conventional farms; then in 2017, organic processors started limiting the amount of milk they purchased from organic dairies and cut the price paid below the cost of production. As a result, family-scale farms of all kinds are going out of business, and tragically, there are increasing reports of farmer suicides.

If you juxtapose the Agricultural Economic Insights chart with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) chart above showing the declining number of farms, it is clear that loss of farm income corresponds with the loss of farmsMore than half of U.S. farm households lost money farming in recent years, according to the USDA, which estimated that median farm income for U.S. farm households was negative $1,553 in 2018.

Farm incomes have dropped despite record productivity on U.S. farms because oversupply drives down commodity prices. Through a plethora of racist policies, Black farmers have lost land at more than five times the rate of white farmers from the peak of Black farmland ownership in 1910 until the 1990s. Meanwhile, profits in consolidated food businesses (farm inputs, retail stores) remain high with returns on investment ranging from 8 to 35 percent. Clearly, there is plenty of money in food: It just does not get apportioned fairly to the people who do the actual work.

Programs to train new farmers, especially veterans, get media attention and funding, but as the National Young Farmers Coalition repeats tirelessly, land in most parts of the country is too expensive for a farmer to buy with farm earnings. USDA data show that farm families have a middle-class income, but only on the largest farms growing a few commodities is that income from farm earnings.

So, while presidential candidates and Green New Dealers are putting bold proposals on the table for public discourse, farmers, farmworkers and concerned eaters should take the opportunity to hammer out proposals that will solve the structural issues that have turned U.S. farming into a problem instead of the win-win-win solutions that are possible.

Declaring that she wants “Washington to work for family farmers again,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren promises to take some steps in the right direction by breaking up vertically integrated trusts, allowing farmers themselves to repair the equipment they purchase, ensuring that contracts for livestock farmers are fair, reinvigorating country of origin labeling, and restricting foreign ownership of farmland.

Sen. Bernie Sanders goes much further, outlining a program that would completely restructure the food system so that farmers can make a living and afford to pay living wages to employees. These are the policies this country needs if we hope to keep family-scale farming.

When farmers can afford to adopt regenerative organic practices, they will take more carbon out of the air and put it in the soil where it builds soil health, making the people and livestock who eat those crops healthier. The original New Deal’s parity pricing also fueled the soil conservation that ended the dust bowl.

Farmers can focus on carbon farming if the price they receive in the marketplace covers the costs of running their farms. Family-scale farmers and the people who want to eat locally grown food all need a fair Green New Deal for the 21st century.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Comments on Proposed Changes to H-2A Program
Adele Gagliardi
Administrator, Office of Policy Development and Research
Employment and Training Administration
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue NW, Room N-5641
Washington, DC 20210
Re: Temporary Agricultural Employment of H-2A Nonimmigrants in the United States
RIN 1205-AB89

Dear Ms. Gagliardi,
Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the proposed changes to the H-2A program. The Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council (NOFA-IC) wishes to stand on record in opposition to most of the proposed changes to the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. While the proposal makes a few changes that are helpful to farmers, most of the changes make conditions worse both for foreign workers who wish to come to work on US farms and for farmworkers who are already in the U.S. employed on U.S. farms and thus, ultimately, worse for the future of farming in the U.S. The proposed regulations would decrease farmworker wages, increase their travel costs, decrease oversight of their housing conditions, weaken enforcement of H-2A standards, and reduce job opportunities for U.S. farmworkers. Furthermore, the proposed changes will disproportionately favor the largest farming operations and labor contractors at the expense of family-scale farms.

Founded in 1971, the Northeast Organic Farming Association is one of the oldest organic farming education and advocacy groups in the country. NOFA is a regional federation of seven independent state Chapters in NY, VT, NH, MA, CT, RI and NJ. Beyond work on state initiatives, the Chapters work together regionally, nationally and internationally via the NOFA Interstate Council (NOFA-IC), a separate 501(c)(3) organization.

The U.S. food supply depends on the work of over two million farmworkers, most of them foreign born and more than half of them lacking legal status. The million undocumented farmworkers live in constant fear of detention, family separation and deportation, and the farmers who employ them live in constant fear of losing their employees, including workers who have served farms for many years and hold positions of responsibility. The H-2A program offers the only legal alternative to hiring undocumented people, but it is a poor substitute for root solutions to the farm labor needs of U.S. farms.

The members of NOFA believe that this country will never have a farming system that is worth sustaining until farm work is elevated to the status it deserves, contributing as it does to one of the basic functions of human existence. Workers on farms should be treated with respect, paid living wages for a 40 hour work week with full benefits, including health insurance,

unemployment insurance and Workers Compensation. They should receive adequate training in health and safety and their work should not expose them to toxic materials that threaten their health and the health of their families. They should have the same right to freedom of association as workers in other sectors of the economy. If these conditions were fulfilled, qualified immigrants as well as U.S. residents would be attracted to farm jobs.

In the short term, any credible reform to U.S. policies regarding farmworkers must retain H-2A provisions regarding compensation, housing, and transportation; strengthen protections against employer harassment and unfair practices, including wage theft, particularly focusing on H-2A labor contractors; provide H-2A farmworker access to courts regarding legal grievances against employers, like wage theft and harassment; and establish a significantly altered program that provides for flexible work stay duration, the ability to change agricultural employers, and the full integration of presently undocumented farmworkers, including a path to permanent legal status, including the option of citizenship. Unfortunately, the proposed rule changes to the H-2A program are regressive, making matters worse.

The DOL proposed changes weaken the recruitment requirements and the protections for U.S. workers that allow them first access to available jobs. Instead of importing foreign workers, undocumented workers who are already in the US should be provided with legal status so that farmers can legally hire them without fear of committing a felony.

Under the existing H-2A law, farm employers who would like to hire temporary foreign workers must first obtain a labor certification from the US Department of Labor (DOL) stating that they face a labor shortage and that they are offering wages and working conditions that will not adversely affect US farmworkers’ wages and working conditions.

The DOL proposal eliminates the 50% rule that gives U.S. workers preference for available jobs for the first half of the work contract period, reducing it to the first 30 days of a contract. This change means that U.S. workers applying for work at an H-2A employer with jobs lasting multiple months would be ineligible for the job after the first 30 days. The proposal also includes a “staggered entry” provision, a new system that would allow farmers to bring in H-2A workers at any time up to 120 days after the advertised initial date of need. This provision also makes it harder for US farmworkers to know when jobs might be available to them.

The DOL proposal would allow farmers to make changes to the job terms without providing the H-2A workers, or U.S. workers who may also be working at a farm, with any voice in the changes.

Guestworkers generally lack bargaining power to demand improvements in conditions and higher wages, due to their restricted non-immigrant, temporary status and other factors, including the debt they often owe upon arriving in the U.S. Foreign workers who have traveled long distances and often made great sacrifices for their families should be able to negotiate any changes to the terms of work that they were promised before coming to the U.S. and there should be a process for appeals.

DOL should withdraw the wage proposal because it will cause, not prevent, adverse effects to U.S. workers’ wages. DOL should continue to use the USDA Farm Labor Survey to determine the AEWR. Additionally, DOL should not weaken the prevailing wage requirement, but instead ensure that prevailing wage determinations are made and implemented.

Particularly concerning is that the DOL proposal will probably result in lower wages for farm workers. The existing low wages is one of the primary reasons that farm jobs are unattractive to many US citizens; lowering them will only make things worse. Under the current H-2A regulations, workers’ wages must be at least the higher of: (a) the local “prevailing wage;” (b) the state or federal minimum wage, (c) the agreed-upon collective bargaining rate; or (d) the “adverse effect wage rate” (AEWR). The AEWR is intended to ensure that the hiring of guestworkers does not undermine (“adversely affect”) the wage standards for U.S. farmworkers. The proposal would change the methodology for calculating the AEWR. Currently, the DOL sets an AEWR for each state based on the USDA’s Farm Labor Survey (FLS). Under the proposal, the first source for the AEWR would be USDA’s FLS; however, if the FLS does not report an annual average hourly gross wage for the standard occupational classification (SOC) for that job in the state or region, the AEWR would instead be the statewide annual average hourly wage for the SOC reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Survey (OES). The practical impact of these and other technical changes is that farmworkers’ wages will likely decrease. As the DOL itself acknowledges, the OES does not even survey farms, but rather surveys establishments that support farm production, such as farm labor contractors, who are among the lowest paying employers of farmworkers. Thus, the OES should not be used as a source of the AEWR. DOL’s own explanation of this proposed methodology shows that if it had been used in 2018, some workers at H-2A employers would have earned lower wages.

We also strongly oppose the proposed changes regarding the longstanding requirement that farmers offer a local prevailing wage if it is the highest wage. Under the H-2A program, there are supposed to be surveys of the prevailing wage for U.S. workers for particular jobs in local labor markets (while the AEWR measures wages in a broader set of jobs and wider geographic area). Under the proposal, DOL would only require consideration of a prevailing wage rate if the DOL’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) issued a prevailing wage, which would be based on the state workforce agency (SWA) submitting a wage survey that must meet a number of challenging requirements. It is likely that few prevailing wage determinations would be issued. In some jobs, the local prevailing wage rate for particular jobs is a significantly higher wage than the state AEWR. In the absence of the prevailing wage determination, however, H-2A employers could lawfully offer below-market wage rates. For low-wage farmworkers these could be very harmful pay cuts.

The DOL should withdraw the proposed changes to the transportation reimbursement. This cost should continue to be covered by employers, not workers.

The proposed regulations would shift some H-2A program costs from farmers to H-2A workers. The H-2A program for decades has required that farmers reimburse workers for their long-distance travel costs to the place of employment. Now, DOL proposes to only require farmers to pay the costs of transportation for H-2A workers to and from the U.S. consulate or embassy in their home country, rather than their homes. Yet workers often live far from consulate locations and are recruited where they live. DOL acknowledges that farmworkers will lose tens of millions of dollars per year from this change, which is money they cannot afford. Many H-2A workers borrow money to pay such costs and arrive in the U.S. under great pressure not to risk employer retaliation due to their fear that they will be unable to repay their loan. This change will only drive foreign workers further into debt to travel to jobs in the U.S. and make them more vulnerable to exploitation by unethical employers.

Despite high profile stories of dangerous and substandard housing under the H-2A program, the proposed regulations would allow housing to be provided to farmworkers without annual inspections by government agencies.

If a state workforce agency (SWA) notifies the DOL that it lacks resources to conduct timely, preoccupancy inspections of all employer-provided housing, DOL would allow housing certifications for up to 24 months, during which time conditions could deteriorate to unsafe levels. Further, following a SWA inspection, DOL would permit employers to “self-inspect” and certify their own housing. Given the high rates of violations of the minimal housing standards that apply, it is deeply troubling that DOL could allow vulnerable H-2A workers to live in housing that has not been inspected annually by a responsible government entity.

The proposed changes do include some modest improvements to address health and safety concerns regarding housing that must be provided to H-2A workers and long-distance, migrant U.S. farmworkers. In a very troubling development as the H-2A program spreads to new areas where there is limited housing, some H-2A employers have been housing workers in motels or other rental or public accommodations. Under the proposal, where there is a failure of the applicable local or state standards to address issues such as overcrowding, adequate sleeping facilities, and laundry and bathing facilities, among others, DOL would require that the housing meet certain OSHA standards addressing those issues. While this is a step in the right direction, greater protections, including improved standards, are needed for H-2A housing. Furthermore, the effectiveness of these improved standards could be undercut if there is not a sufficiently strong system for and commitment to inspections and enforcement of housing violations.

The surety bond requirement must be substantially increased and coverage extended to cover more H-2A farmworkers, as the victims of harassment.

The proposal includes a modest improvement requiring an increase in the bond amounts required to be posted by H-2A labor contractors (H-2ALCs). This is important because H-2A labor contractors are unable to pay back workers for labor violations. DOL has recognized the need for higher surety bonds, but the increases are insufficient. Improvements are also needed to help victimized workers access the bonds. However, the proposal fails to address a number of other significant challenges workers face with H-2ALCs, and the already troubling lack of transparency with H-2ALCs will be exacerbated by the proposed changes. Too often farm operators seek to keep their labor costs low by hiring H-2ALCs and seeking to use the H-2ALCs as a shield to escape responsibility. The DOL is well aware that labor contracting is a notorious method for farmers to evade responsibility for the mistreatment of farmworkers, but its responses to these abuses are utterly inadequate.

The Department of Labor should withdraw the harmful proposed changes to the H-2A program consistent with these comments.
In addition, there are serious shortcomings in the program’s policies, administration and enforcement that this proposal utterly fails to address. For example, in many locations around the country there are no prevailing wage surveys being done and therefore the prevailing wage is not required to be paid by H-2A employers, who are allowed to undercut the labor market. The Department and other agencies have also failed to prevent recruitment fees being charged to many farmworkers under the H-2A program, which leads to greater debt and contributes to the workers’ vulnerability and fear of challenging unfair or unlawful conduct. Discriminatory job qualifications are applied to U.S. workers by employers that prefer guestworkers. There are also rampant violations of farmworkers’ labor rights, including occupational safety protections.

“De-carbonize the Atmosphere, Re-carbonize the Soil!”(Jim Goodman, inspired by La Via Campesina)

By Elizabeth Henderson

Swiss Chard at Woven Roots Farm, MA

No till Swiss Chard at Woven Roots Farm, MA, 2016. Surrounded by woods, Woven Roots farmers, Jen and Pete Salinetti and their crew, use no-till regenerative organic practices to grow a diversity of certified organic vegetables for the members of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Farms like this one build carbon in the soil while also producing high quality, nutrient dense food.

“For Sale” signs have replaced “Dairy of Distinction” on the last two dairy farms on the road I drive to town. The farm crisis of the 1980’s that never really went away has resurfaced with a vengeance. In 2013, aggregate farm earnings were half of what they were in 2012. Farm income has continued to decline ever since. The moment is ripe for the movement for a sustainable agriculture to address the root causes.

Just as in the 80’s, a brief period of high commodity prices and cheap credit in the 2010’s resulted in a debt and asset bubble. Then prices collapsed. Meanwhile, ever larger corporations have consolidated their dominance in the food sector resulting in shoppers paying more, and a shrinking portion of what they pay going to farmers. At first this mainly hit conventional farms, but in 2017, processors started limiting the amount of milk they purchased from organic dairies and cut the price paid below the cost of production. As a result, family-scale farms of all kinds are going out of business. Reports of farmer suicides are increasing dramatically.  Despite the shortage of farm workers, their wages remain below the poverty line.  People of color and women are often trapped in the lowest paying food system jobs and many are forced to survive on SNAP payments. The tariff game of #45 is only making things worse. The farm consolidation that has taken place has grave consequences for the environment and for climate change as well. The newly passed Farm Bill barely touches the structural and fairness issues that led to this on-going disaster for family-scale farms and the food security of this country.

An alliance of social movements and members of Congress led by newly elected Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) are proposing a Green New Deal that would initiate an emergency mobilization to address economic inequities and reverse our blind march toward catastrophic climate change, attracting much more attention than the Green Party version. In a draft resolution, Ocasio Cortez proposes the formation of a Select Committee to develop a plan to transition the US to a carbon neutral economy within ten years, together with a comprehensive package including guaranteed living wage jobs, public banks, and a “Just Transition” for all workers. As of this writing, 43 members of the House have signed on to the concept.

The sustainable agriculture movement with our many organizations and individuals – farmers, foodies, ngos, faith groups and enviros together with farmworkers, food chain workers and their advocates – should become active shapers of the food and agriculture aspects of the Green New Deal. Frontline communities that bear the brunt of the negative impacts of climate chaos and food and economic system breakdown often have the most penetrating insights into pathways forward and real solutions.  For this reason, in addition to the ethical imperatives, fair representation of frontline communities at decision-making tables (of the Select Committee and beyond) is essential.  As a white woman wanting to be the best ally I can, I hope to warmly encourage white people in the food movement to un-learn racism and use privilege to acknowledge and overcome our history of oppression.

What was the New Deal and What Did it Do for Agriculture?

Under tremendous pressure from the social movements in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, “U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal—a set of government programs to provide employment and social security, reform tax policies and business practices, and stimulate the economy. It included the building of homes, hospitals, school, roads, dams and electrical grids. The New Deal put millions of people to work and created a new policy framework for American democracy. New Deal programs included public employment (Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps); farm price supports (Agricultural Adjustment Act); environmental restoration (reforestation and land conservation); labor rights (Wagner Act); minimum wages and standards (National Recovery Act and Fair Labor Standards Act); cooperative enterprises (Works Progress Administration support for self-help); public infrastructure development (TVA and rural electrification); subsidized basic necessities (food commodity programs and Federal Housing Act); construction of schools, parks, and housing (Civil Works Administration); and income maintenance (Social Security Act).”[i]

Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace fashioned the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), introducing supply management together with parity pricing, a national policy of price supports that functioned from 1933 – 53. In effect, parity provided a minimum wage for farms.  In “A brief history of Parity Pricing and the present day ramifications of the abandonment of a Par Economy,” Kevin Engelbert, NY’s first certified organic dairy farmer, explains how it established “commodity prices that would give farmers the purchasing power, with respect to items they buy, equivalent to the purchasing power of agricultural commodities in a ‘base’ period.” [ii]

In “Crisis by Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy,” Mark Ritchie and Kevin Ristau describe the parity system in more detail:

The parity program had thee central features:

(1) It established the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which made loans to farmers whenever prices offered by the food processors or grain corporations fell below the cost of production. This allowed farmers to hold their crops off the market, eventually forcing prices back up. Once prices returned to fair levels, farmers sold their crops and repaid the CCC with interest. By allowing farmers to control their marketing, the CCC loan program made it possible for them to receive a fair price from the marketplace without relying on subsidies.

(2) It regulated farm production in order to balance supply with demand, thereby preventing surpluses. Since government storage of surpluses was expensive, this feature was crucial to reducing government costs.

(3) It created a national grain reserve to prevent consumer prices from skyrocketing in times of drought or other natural disasters. When prices rose above a predetermined level, grain was released from government reserves onto the market, driving prices back down to normal levels. 

From 1933 to 1953 this parity legislation remained in effect and was extremely successful. Farmers received fair prices for their crops, production was controlled to prevent costly surpluses, and consumer prices remained low and stable. At the same time, the number of new farmers increased, soil and water conservation practices expanded dramatically, and overall farm debt declined. What is even more important is that this parity program was not a burden to the taxpayers. The CCC, by charging interest on its storable commodity loans, made nearly $13 million between 1933 and 1952. [iii] 

What Could a Green New Deal (GND) Do for Agriculture?

First of all, instead of current subsidies that purportedly compensate for constantly falling farm prices, but really only subsidize the big processors, vertically integrated livestock factories, and international traders, family-scale farms need a system of fair pricing, that is, prices that cover the real costs of living and farming, including conservation practices that regenerate natural resources. We need to dust off and refresh the concept of parity to create a just transition out of our calamitous current conditions. Twenty-first century parity should provide price supports and supply management for the basic commodities – “wheat, cotton, field corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, and milk and its products”[iv] – as described by Ritchie and Ristau, and reestablish farmer held reserves for grains as buffer stocks in case of poor harvests or climate disasters that also protect farmers against price volatility.

Parity pricing and supply management should also be extended to other crops, what Farm Bill language calls “specialty crops.”  Since fruit and vegetables are perishable, the GND should invest in value-added enterprises that could be farmer or worker-owned coops in every county where these crops are grown.  If excess supply of fresh produce threatened to lower prices, the fruit and vegetables would be frozen, canned or dried, or made into products that can be stored for use year round.  Investing in local and regional processing would stimulate local economies and provide many jobs. The GND would return livestock onto family farms, in place of large-scale Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that have eliminated the need for diverse crop rotations. Family farm livestock production integrates crops and livestock for a much more flexible and resilient system that reduces the pressure for routine antibiotic use. This system also increases the biodiversity on these farms thus strengthening their economic viability adding opportunities for new farmers while improving the quality of the meat, milk, and eggs.

Next, farmers need contract reform.  Farmers that sell to bigger entities need legislation to protect their rights to freedom of association so that they can form groups or cooperatives to strengthen their bargaining position in negotiating fair contracts without threat of retaliation.  In addition, a limit must be set on the middlemen’s share of the final shopper dollar: if prices go up, middlemen must pay farmers more; if the prices processors pay to farmers go down, the final point of purchase price for shoppers should also go down.  With control by mega-corporations an ever greater threat to family-scale farming, the GND must be linked with anti-trust measures like the Booker bill that calls for a moratorium on mergers (S.3404, The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2018).

All farmers should be eligible for GND programs whether they own land, rent it with cash payments or through share cropping.

The GND should include measures that are essential to establishing farm work as a respected and fairly remunerated profession. Ocasio-Cortez wants to guarantee living wages and green jobs – that must include the jobs on farms. Since farm worker advocates and department of labor staff agree that over 60% of farm workers on US crop farms are undocumented, immigration reform based on human rights needs to accompany the GND. Human rights based immigration reform would prevent the separation of families and include a path to legal status.  Farm workers should have the option of a path to citizenship if they want to remain in the US or freedom to come and go across the border to visit their families back home.

Like farmers, farmworkers need freedom of association so that they can form groups or unions to negotiate fair pay and working conditions. If farms are guaranteed prices that cover their costs of production, farm earnings will be high enough to pay farm workers time and a half for overtime over 40 hours a week like workers in almost every other sector of the economy.

In writing about parity, Ritchie and Ristau make a very important additional point: “Paying farmers a fair price would result in a one-time increase in food prices of only 3 to 5 percent, less than a nickel on a loaf of bread. Since the supply management proposal also contains provisions for doubling the funds available for food assistance, the poor would not be hurt by this small increase in food prices.” [v]

Investment in Regenerative Farming Practices

To invest effectively in “drawdown” of greenhouse gases (GHG), the GND must include incentives and training for farmers to become the true managers of solar power that photosynthesis makes possible. The largest, and only remaining, “sink” for carbon on earth is the soil and regenerative farming practices increase soil carbon. The more fertile the soil, the more carbon it holds. The same practices that improve soil health, such as planting cover crops, recycling crop residues, and reducing tillage, the basic practices of organic agriculture grounded in agroecology, build soil carbon. In a win-win-win combination, building the health of soil improves farm viability, increasing farm resiliency to extreme weather events, and improving food quality and surrounding water quality.

Since 1/3 of the energy used by conventional agriculture comes from the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers which are natural gas derivatives, farms under the GND will reestablish the importance of natural nitrogen creation by legumes and compost.

Confining cattle, hogs and poultry in huge structures turns manure from a valuable soil nutrient into a big storage problem, with lagoons that overflow during extreme rainfall events with large, negative environmental impacts. Ending the confinement of livestock will also lead to better manure management.  Raising livestock on pasture turns manure back into a benefit. Especially when combined with skillful rotations, integrating livestock with crops builds soil carbon. Planting trees in pastures (silvoculture) builds carbon even faster. The GND should invest in training and incentives for farmers to make these changes in their practices. Farmers will be able to afford to farm more ecologically, if we push for the structural changes that will be part of the GND and will revitalize farms and rural areas.

The GND should preserve farmland and discourage sprawl. Research in California and New York led by UC Davis and American Farmland Trust show that the conversion of agricultural land to development, particularly low-density real estate development, increases GHG emissions. Farms emit fewer greenhouse gases than the homes that often replace them. Tax and other incentives can make preserved farmland available to new farmers.

The GND should also ban speculation on agricultural commodities and farmland since this drives up the price of land and food. Strict regulations should control investors who are not producers or final users.  Food derivatives markets should not be used as investment vehicles by banks and investment funds.

A Just Transition for Farming

Ocasio Cortez calls for a “Just Transition” for all workers.  In agriculture, a just transition would mean providing access to farmland to those from whom it has been unjustly taken, the reparations called for by farmers of color and Native Americans (http://www.soulfirefarm.org/support/reparations/).

Farmworkers should have the opportunity to become farmers. The GND should include training for farmworkers who have been trapped in repetitive, body-taxing jobs so that they can become farm managers themselves.

It should also include retraining for the farmers who now farm thousands of acres using heavy equipment, chemical fertilizers and pesticides to use regenerative practices with a buy-out scheme for CAFOs. Once these farmers give up the heavy use of chemicals, parity pricing and supply management will free them from needing so many acres for the economic viability of their farms.  GND incentives could encourage them to sell excess land to new farmers and to retrained farm workers.  Thousands of acres could become available for smaller scale farms and also for wildlife. Increasing the social diversity of farmers will at the same time promote biodiversity, since they will grow a greater variety of crops and livestock breeds, which also increases sustainability. As La Via Campesina and others note, small farmers cool the planet.[vi]

A Just Transition would provide incentives to farmers to reduce their production of bio-fuels that take land out of food production. Instead, farms could receive payment for other kinds of renewable energy production that makes use of marginal land, sun, wind and the heat of the earth.

With the goals of food, fiber and energy self-sufficiency and the elimination of hunger at the local, regional, or national level, farmers should be weaned from the current focus on an export economy.  Thus, changes in trade policies will also have to accompany the GND.

Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Participate in Creating a Green New Deal

Everyone eats. To “eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation,” as called for in the  draft resolution for the GND, means that everyone will have access to good food, fair food, food they can afford without impoverishing themselves or the world’s farmers. That has to be part of the GND. For the food system to be sustainable, we must balance the interests of farmers and farmworkers while constantly expanding access to local high quality organic foods for more and more people of all income levels, comprehensive domestic fair trade by definition.

When the 17% of all workers who are food workers earn living wages of $15 an hour or more, they will get off food stamps (a savings for tax payers) and be able to afford to buy high quality, locally grown food from their own earnings. The billions of dollars that currently go into subsidizing crop insurance could be reallocated to increase funding for SNAP and other nutrition programs so that low-income people can afford the higher prices that would be needed to fully cover farm production costs for fair, regenerative, ecological practices.

A recent article by Whitney Webb, “Corporations see a Different Kind of “Green” in Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal,” [vii] accuses the newly elected Representative of moving to the right and opening the door for corporate takeover: “Despite its pretty, progressive-sounding banner, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal — in its current form — will continue to perpetuate gross distributive injustice by ensuring that the side with the most “green” keeps winning as the world continues to seek solutions to climate change.” This will only happen if social movements like the sustainable agriculture movement hang back and allow neo-liberalism which is dominant in both mainstream parties, to continue the cheap food policies that have put farms in crisis.

In “The Green New Deal: Fulcrum for the farm and food justice movement?” Eric Holt-Gimenez writes: “Social movements have an opportunity to join together as never before—not just to get behind the Green New Deal—but to form a broad-based, multi-racial, working class movement to build political power. Visionary leaders from these movements are already knitting together strategies for solidarity, education and action…The Green New Deal just might be the fulcrum upon which the farm, food and climate movements can pivot our society towards the just transition we all urgently need and desire.”[viii]

By not merely endorsing the Green New Deal, but insisting on a place at the table when the program is written, the sustainable and organic agriculture movement will open the path to the ecological, equitable and fair food system we dream about. And while we are in visionary mode, funding for the GND could come from taxing polluters.

Original Post at The Prying Mantis.

[i] 12 Reasons Labor Should Demand a Green New Deal by Jeremy Brecher and Joe Uehlein, In These Times. Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, 6:20 pm.

[ii] Kevin Engelbert, “A brief history of Parity Pricing and the present day ramifications of the abandonment of a Par Economy” http://www.cornucopia.org/2013/01/a-brief-history-of-parity-pricing-and-the-present-day-ramifications-of-the-abandonment-of-a-par-economy/

[iii] CRISIS BY DESIGN: A BRIEF REVIEW OF U.S. FARM POLICY Mark Ritchie & Kevin Ristau, League of Rural Voters Education Project 1987, pp. 2 – 3. Also see “Parity and Profits” by Charles Walters. Posted on July 30, 2001 on Weston C. Price website. Remarks of Charles Walters, Executive Editor, Acres USA Given at the Acres USA Conference December 1999, Minneapolis, MN

[iv] P. 8,The Agricultural Adjustment Act, PUBLIC—No. 10—73D CONGRESS, H.R. 3835

[v] Ritchie and Ristau, op. cit., p. 14.

[vi] http://viacampesina.org/en/la-via-campesina-position-paper-small-scale-sustenable-farmers-are-cooling-down-the-earth/


[vii] The Green New Deal: Fulcrum for the farm and food justice movement? Eric Holt-Gimenez, Food First, 12.17.2018: http://foodfirst.org/the-green-new-deal-fulcrum-for-the-food-justice-movement/