As the U.S. Looks to Revamp the Farm Bill, Women Must Be at the Table

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More than likely, despite food costs going through the roof, and the news about California’s climate—first a drought, then downpours—you’ve probably given little thought to the Farm Bill, set to expire at the end of September 2023.

You may have noticed a good share of our supermarket food has traveled the world to reach us. Maybe you’ve discovered local food supplies at your farmer’s market—more delicious and a little more expensive.

But did you know that the current U.S. Farm Bill calls the fresh fruits and vegetables your mother and grandma insisted you eat, “specialty crops”? Did you know foreign imports of fruits and vegetables and other foods have increased significantly since 2000? Both trends can make local cherries and asparagus pricier than, say, grapes imported from Chile, or foods sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. The latter is Farm Bill-subsidized and widely known for contributing to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

While the U.S. has created an omnibus Farm Bill for nearly a century, our mothers—especially when Native or women of color—have never had a say in where our government’s farm support money goes. Not until recently.

Now the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry is under the leadership of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Her hearings will mark arguments on the horizon we’d all be wise to notice.

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U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)—chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry—speaks on Feb. 4, 2014, after that year’s vote for the Farm Bill. Behind her is (left to right) Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Stabenow has effectively won more growing of “specialty crops.” She also seeks more U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research and education in the new Farm Bill—not less, as happened under Trump’s regime. She will need our support. The House and the Senate have to hammer out a new Farm Bill together, and the House Committee on Agriculture is headed by Glenn Thompson (R-Pa).

Thompson alleges the 2020 election was anything but free and fair. Like other MAGA Republicans, he objected, without evidence, to the certification of his state’s electoral votes. In keeping with his logic, he recently told Progressive Farmer that all the new Farm Bill of 2023 needs are a few “tweaks.” He promises not to let it become “a climate bill,” climate apparently irrelevant to farmers. Tell that to California.

Traditionally, the Senate and House Agriculture Committees that create the omnibus Farm Bills have been male territory—mostly important-white-male territory. So not surprisingly, instead of our mothers’ fruits and vegetables, the U.S. Farm Bill largely subsidizes wheat, corn and soybeans—most needed by global farmers and ranchers growing meat for our barbecues.

Scientific American reports that about 40 percent of greenhouse gases heating up the planet come from farming. Red meat especially drives those numbers. Your cutting back on barbecues by just 25 percent would help reduce the climate crisis, scientists say—but that’s more than a “tweak” to Thompson’s agri-business-as-usual.

There’s another issue at play: White farmers account for 96 percent of ownership of the nation’s farmland, and they aren’t getting any younger. The USDA says the average age of today’s farmer is 57.5 years. It anticipates that 900 million acres—land amounting to the size of Alaska—will change ownership in the coming decade.

That’s triggered another old American tradition: land grabs. The National Family Farm Coalition has partnered with Vermont Law School to create four reports on state and federal laws overseeing land access with that history in mind. If you picture your local farmer as a guy with a green John Deere cap and a sunburned red neck, you may need to alter the image. White male landowners at the top of the U.S. food chain are bigger than ever, and they’re more likely to wear ties or golf shirts. A growing number are foreign, not American.

According to Land Report, a publication for investors, the 266,245 acres originally grabbed from the Indigenous Comanches in 1870, now Four Sixes Ranch in West Texas, sold in 2022 for $341 million to an investment group organized by Taylor Sheridan, the screenwriter of Yellowstone.

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates has amassed nearly 270,000 acres of farmland in 18 states (and more overseas). That’s peanuts to the nation’s largest landowner: Californian Archie “Red” Emmerson, and his family’s 2.33 million acres, much of it planted to lumber, part of the U.S. Farm Bill.

What does that have to do with you and your table? A growing number of new farmers must lease land to grow crops. Leasing is one step removed from sharecropping. Leah Penniman, in Farming While Black, reminds us that only 45,000 farmers identify as Black today—down from a million Black farmers a century ago. They owned 16 to 19 million acres in 1900, but 90 percent of owners lost their land. (Was it legal? Read what happened at FeedingAmerica.org.)

More than 1.5 billion acres were originally taken from Indigenous communities through U.S. treaties and homestead acts. White landowners also benefitted from the stolen labor of enslaved African people. Cathy Day and Hamsa Ganapathi with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explain that the Farm Bill, which grew out of the New Deal, really wasn’t all that new. It upheld systemic racism and sexism by excluding female domestic workers and farmworkers who were largely people of color.

White male landowners at the top of the U.S. food chain are bigger than ever, and they’re more likely to wear ties or golf shirts.

A whole new generation of younger, female, Indigenous, Black, Latinx and queer farmers are contending with land prices out of reach, and old attitudes that minimize the healthier, more sustainable production they seek. Short-term profits of large landowners and agribusiness corporations that promote pesticides and herbicides are still being subsidized by programs within the Farm Bill­—despite evidence of growing inequality, soil depletion and chemicals like glyphosate and paraquat, associated with growing rates of Parkinson’s disease and cancer.

Since the 1930s, Congress has enacted 18 farm bills, typically renewing about every five years.

It funds 12 different pieces, called titles. Titles I-XII range from Commodity Revenue Supports, to Forestry, Farm Credit, Research, Conservation and Rural Development.

Its largest portion is labeled Nutrition Programs, which include SNAP (the peppy new name for Food Stamps) and school and daycare lunches. Considered an expense—oh dear, can we afford it?—this part of the Farm Bill not only provides food to mothers, infants, school children and the elderly, but helps support the U.S. farms’ production that feeds them. It really could be more accurately labeled the U.S. Food Security program, a bottom-line investment for both families and farmers.

If you believe our lunches and dinners matter, you’re not alone. The December 2022 national conference organized by WFAN (the Women, Food and Agriculture Network) revealed hundreds of formidable and experienced women passionately involved in food security. They not only highlighted the racial and gendered inequities; they offered exciting solutions.

Farmer Devora Kimelman-Block shared ways that the recent Inflation Reduction Act is lowering barriers to “regenerative agriculture.” Like sustainable ag and agroecology, regenerative ag is rooted in building healthy soil. Made fertile and spongy, soil absorbs and stores water, reducing farmers’ weather risks from drought or from flooding. Soil-building methods include cover-cropping, composting, reduced tillage and rotational grazing.

Maryland farmer Cleo Braver stressed that farmers producing food for local human consumption, instead of just corn for global livestock, could become the backbone of any state’s economy.

“We need to take back our food, because most of the food we eat isn’t grown in the USA,” she said.

I am the first Native woman of color ever to chair New Mexico’s Food and Agricultural Council. It’s not easy. It’s even harder when you are making change.

Helga Garcia-Garza

Helga Garcia-Garza of Albuquerque, N.M., keynoted WFAN’s conference. She told a tale, not of tweaks, but of an overhaul of the region’s South Valley farms. Instead of competing for global markets, she headed a group of five cooperative farms collaborating to increase their capacity and remove structural barriers. They built a local farm sector in the region now 51 farms strong.

Their methods included community-supported agriculture (CSAs); a commitment to organic, regenerative farming; and an agricultural network that created a wholesale business with local senior centers, hospitals, local grocery co-ops and restaurants. They also built their farms’ capacity, through technical assistance in food safety, nutrition education, group purchases, a downtown farmer’s market, and a “Grow the Growers” farm training program for newbies. They’ve even begun their own line of baby food.

“No one spoke for us,” Garcia-Garza said. “We spoke for ourselves. We provided data on our farmers, their production and economic activity—and then we got noticed. Data is very important. I am the first Native woman of color ever to chair New Mexico’s Food and Agricultural Council. It’s not easy. It’s even harder when you are making change. I am a person who builds strong bridges. I always ask, what’s the solution here? I choose our battles with heart and vision.”

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A road runs though farmland in Tulare County in the Central Valley on Aug. 26, 2021, near Pixley, Calif. (Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

One of the battles Garcia-Garza chose was racial training for the state council.

“It was a very uncomfortable training,” she admitted. “But it is very important work, and we need to stick to our mission of making New Mexico a food-sustainable state. We’re taking care of the earth and our community.” She credited Deborah Haaland, one of the first two Native women to be voted into Congress, and New Mexico’s senior Senator Linda Lopez, for their support of the South Valley Farmer Cooperative, saluting “women in places of power!”

The Future of the U.S. Farm Bill

How can you stay in touch with the Farm Bill and advocate for what your community needs? WFAN’s executive director Juliann Salinas told Ms. that WFAN will be meeting in Washington with a growing number of networks, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the National Family Farm Coalition, the National Young Farmers Coalition and others for “partnership advocacy work … to insist that the Farm Bill be rooted in the adaptation of regenerative practices that benefit planet and people over profits. We are also pulling together a members’ survey to get a better understanding of what’s most pressing for our members.”

Even if you’re not a member, you can stay in touch with them and new developments as they happen, via WFAN’s Plate to Politics program. It will highlight issues in the Farm Bill in future and build your confidence while advocating for an overhaul to agricultural business-as-usual—and please, not another tweak to our too-expensive table, set with white tablecloth, danger and a dash of delusion.

Up next:

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About

Rickey Gard Diamond’s latest book, Screwnomics, is prompting EconoGirlfriend Conversations around the country, many sponsored by The Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom—US, and the educational non-profit An Economy of Our Own. Learn more at www.screwnomics.org and www.WILPFUS.org.