Farming Magazine - January, 2013

COLUMNS

New England Farmers Union: 2012 in the Rearview Mirror

By Annette Higby

Happy New Year from all of us at New England Farmers Union!

As we round the bend of another new year, we have much to do to strengthen agriculture and food systems in the Northeast. We know the challenges; we know the opportunities. Our monthly column in Farming will reflect on those challenges and opportunities, but first we want to review what just passed, note our successes, claim our bragging rights, and kick-start the new year with a round of applause for all we accomplished in 2012.

Any year that includes a farm bill reauthorization is likely to be filled with some highs and lows, some overheated debate, unqualified wins and utter frustration. 2012 and the farm bill debate had all of those things. It proceeded in fits and some bipartisan starts, followed by partisan gridlock and an insurmountable election-year stall.

Early last year, NEFU developed a set of farm bill priorities around local and regional food systems, conservation, dairy policy, organic agriculture and beginning farmers. Many of our priorities were included in the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act (LFFJA); introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. We worked to add co-sponsors from New England to the LFFJA, which ultimately earned 77 co-sponsors in the House and 14 in the Senate.

In late May, just as the Senate was about to take up the 2012 farm bill, every member of the Northeast congressional delegation received a hand-delivered copy of "A Northeast Farm Bill Agenda: Priorities for the 2012 Farm Bill." NEFU and our regional partners shaped the agenda. Developed with the input of more than 300 diverse food and farm groups in the Northeast, it provided a comprehensive and concrete set of policy options to support local and regional food systems, conservation programs, dairy farms, beginning farmers, food security and economic development in our region.

In early June, just as the Senate began debate on more than 100 amendments to the farm bill, every member of the Senate in New England received NEFU's recommendations on amendments that would and would not serve the best interests of our members. What did we win? Provisions giving mandatory funding for farm-based, value-added processing; better crop insurance for organic farmers; Farm Service Agency lending for commercial fishermen; and stronger conservation measures for crop insurance participants. We fought off amendments that would cripple support for farmers' markets and food hubs, and eliminate important conservation programs.

In September, when the farm bill became stalled in the House and Congress was about to leave town without passing a five-year farm bill, we mobilized. We took 11 New England farmers and advocates to Washington, D.C., to tell the members of Congress in personal and concrete terms why we need the certainty of a full five-year farm bill. NEFU members from all six New England states responded to NEFU's action alerts by calling or emailing their House members, urging them to bring the bill to the floor for debate. "Farm Bill Now" was the rallying cry that became a campaign and election year issue throughout New England.

"Six States with One Voice at the National Table" is our motto, and it is a powerful message. In one of the most fiscally challenging farm bill debates on record, we garnered new resources for producers of specialty crops (fruit and vegetable); for farmers' markets and food hubs; for better crop insurance products for small, midsized and diversified farms; and for nutrition incentives that benefit farmers and low-income consumers. For the 2012 farm bill debate, New England farmers were at the table and made policy gains.

There was something else different about 2012. New England was never so well represented on the agriculture committees in Congress. There were four House Agriculture Committee members from New England, including Pingree, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., served on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Agriculture's champions deserve to be recognized. The Golden Triangle award is the National Farmers Union's highest legislative honor, presented to members of Congress who have demonstrated leadership and support for policies that benefit family farmers, ranchers, fishermen and rural communities. Legislation, cooperation and education form the three sides of the National Farmers Union Golden Triangle. This year, NEFU selected four members of our congressional delegation to receive this prestigious award to recognize their leadership on a variety of issues, including support for our dairy industry, local and regional markets for our farms and fisheries, and conservation programs. They were:

Courtney, a member of the House Agriculture Committee who represents the second district of Connecticut.

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who represents the second district of Rhode Island.

Welch, a member of the House Agriculture Committee who represents the at-large district of Vermont.

Leahy, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Working with our regional partners, building relationships with our congressional delegations, cultivating farmer leadership and grassroots engagement - these are the essential elements of effective advocacy and a better farm bill. We will use all of those tools to amplify the voices of farmers and fishermen throughout New England as the 113th Congress convenes with five new members of Congress from New England who all understand and support farms and farmers.

Let's make it so that at the end of 2013 we can brag that we shoehorned even more of New England's agriculture and fisheries priorities into the national debate about food and farming. Let's get started today. Join NEFU (www.newenglandfarmersunion.org/membership/join) and help make 2013 the best year yet for New England's family farmers.

Annette Higby is policy director for New England Farmers Union, a membership- based organization committed to protect and enhance the economic well-being and quality of life of family farmers, foresters, nursery growers and consumers in all six New England states. Get involved by becoming a member today. Visit www.newenglandfarmersunion.org to learn more.