by Ellen Cardone Banks
Sierra Club volunteers and allies from other organizations traveled to Washington, DC in late September to lobby our US Senators and Representatives to support provisions in the Agriculture Bill that further our environmental and social justice principles. (“Fly-in” is a widely-used term for an organizational lobbying event.) Federal farm bills are extremely complex and consume a large share of the national budget, so they are enacted only once every five years.
Farm policy might not be the first issue that comes to mind when thinking about the Sierra Club, but agriculture has deep connections with climate change, water quality, toxic pollution, and of course the human right to affordable, nourishing food. For example, 80-90% of water consumption in the USA goes to agriculture, (https://css.umich.edu/publications/factsheets/water/us-water-supply-and-distribution-factsheet#) and water pollution from fertilizer run-off is a major cause of toxic algae blooms that poison drinking water and aquatic species. PFAS “forever chemicals” are contaminating soil and causing human health consequences that we are learning more and more about. Consolidation of farms into CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) severely disrupt rural communities and increase pollution.
Hank Graddy from Iowa, one of the leaders of the Sierra Club Grassroots Farm committee and an organizer of the Fly-in, says that Iowa’s legendary soil is being ruined by the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides as “degenerative agriculture” in contrast to “regenerative agriculture” that nurtures soil.
Preparation for the Fly-In included four webinars over six weeks, led by Sierra Club staff and experts from other organizations, then a day and a half of intensive meetings in the DC office, plus weeks of phone calls to arrange for visits to congressional offices. Finally, on September 18 and 19, volunteers were ready to set out for Capitol Hill to meet with our Senators’ and Representatives’ offices. Our New York team included Wayne Miller, Sally White and Tracy Frisch (all active on our Farm and Food committee, and Wayne and Tracy were among the writers of a report about the harms of PFAS-containing sewage sludge on farm fields), Mallory Rutigliano from the NYC Group, Carolina Korth, an activist in NY City, originally from a Nebraska farm, and this writer. Other participants were from Iowa, Tennessee, Illinois, California, Kentucky, Michigan, Idaho, and Montana, and included both young and seasoned activists.
Generally, visits are with our Congress members’ staffs rather than the members themselves, but that is fine because staffers are the people who write the bills and advise their Representatives and Senators on the enormous number of issues before Congress.
The Fly-in lobby team’s and Sierra Club’s first priority was to continue the Inflation Reduction Act’s $20 billion investment in farms and food, including improved Supplementary Nutrition Assistance program, SNAP, which is the largest expenditure in the Farm Bill, and giving SNAP recipients more access to farmers’ markets and other sources of nutritious produce from family farms.
Several titles in the massive bill would assist farmers to conserve their soil and water in the face of climate change, including carbon sequestration, reduced tilling, cover crops, pasture grazing vs. cattle confinement, pollinator plantings around field margins and water-preserving field design. These regenerative agriculture programs are embraced by family farmers; only a quarter of those who apply are able to be funded under the present bill. The Agricultural Resilience Act, included in the bill, would set a 2040 goal for net-zero agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
A high priority in Sierra Club farm advocacy is reducing incentives to CAFOs, which currently receive an outsize share of Agriculture Bill benefits. CAFOS crowd out family farms, as noted by Wayne Miller and Sally White, whose neighbors’ farms in New York’s North Country are rapidly converting to this corporate model. These operations create massive air pollution, especially climate-damaging methane, pollute water, leading to toxic algae blooms (including in the Great Lakes), are inhumane in treatment of animals, and cause imbalance in rural economies.
We learned that farmers are required to pay a “check-off” fee in proportion to their sales of crops and animals. These fees were designed to support agricultural research and other assistance to farmers, but are now largely given to agricultural conglomerates for lobbying and advertising campaigns such as the “Got Milk” campaign. Sierra Club supports a title in the bill that would return these funds to their original purpose.
Sierra Club supports equity titles in the bill, including the Farmer to Farmer Education act, which would assist new aspiring farmers in getting started, increased assistance for HBCU and Tribal college agriculture programs and other kinds of support for farmers of color who have historically been excluded from federal farm assistance, and a Farmland for Farmers bill, sponsored by Senator Booker, that would restrict multinational corporations from speculating in American farmland.
Our Senators Schumer and Gillibrand are supportive of Sierra Club agricultural priorities, while our Representatives, along party lines, were either supportive or unwilling to state their positions. Historically, the Agriculture Bill has been bipartisan. There is much less bipartisanship in these fractious times, but failing to pass a bill does not seem to be likely according to our staff, now that the House of Representatives is beginning to consider legislation.
Further, as New York, California and other states have enacted state legislation for farm worker safety and fairness, climate-safe agriculture and humane treatment of animals (for example, California has banned the sale of eggs from caged hens and pork from gestation cages) a response from the far right is the “Ending Agriculture Trade Suppression” (EATS) bill, that would overrule thousands of state laws. This is one of many so-called “conservative” attacks on federalism (formerly a conservative article of faith) that would concentrate power on factions of Congress that do not represent the views of the majority of Americans.
The New York lobby team enjoyed this intensive and productive Fly-in and we made sure our Midwestern and other Sierra Club activists know that New York is indeed an agricultural state.
Wayne Miller, Sally White, Carolina Korth, Tracy Frisch, Mallory Rutigliano, and Ellen Cardone Banks lobbying in Washington, DC.
Tracy Frisch, Ellen Cardone Banks, Mallory Rutigliano, and Carolina Korth lobbying in Washington, DC.
A related article in this issue by Bonnie Lane Weber goes into more detail on some sections of the Agriculture Bill, and a note suggests what our members can do to support our Ag Bill priorities.