by Brittany Jablonsky, Director of Advocacy Communications
The National Farmers Union convention concluded last week in Springfield, Mass., and, as always, the policy debate was a highlight of the convention. Farmers Union members are truly engaged in the grassroots process from beginning to end, starting with suggestions from the smallest county meeting, to each individual state organization’s policy statement, to members offering policy changes from the floor of the national convention. NFU President Roger Johnson also appoints a committee of Farmers Union leaders from across the country each year who are tasked with taking a comprehensive look at the national policy and suggesting revisions for the membership to consider adopting. This year’s policy committee made some substantive edits to the policy document, which led to robust debate at the convention. What follows are some of the changes to the 2013 NFU policy that the delegates adopted.
Some of the delegates’ revisions were a reflection on the changing face of agriculture, and on how Farmers Union membership is growing and changing as well. For example, the delegates changed policy language supporting “rural” communities to supporting “local” communities. Increasingly, new agricultural opportunities are being found in urban or suburban areas that do not meet a strict definition of rural, so the delegates felt the need to be more inclusive. An additional point commends artisan producers for their pioneering efforts in revitalizing agriculture in their local communities. Another example is the more extensive language added to existing NFU policy on small-boat fishermen and women, as these small-business owners share a number of challenges with family farmers and ranchers.
NFU has existing policy on working with a diverse coalition of organizations and stakeholders, and our organization prides itself on doing so. The past year’s struggle to get policymakers to find the political will to pass a new farm bill have shown that this outreach and education is critical, particularly in light of the steady decline in rural populations and of those directly involved in agriculture. This led the delegates to adopt policy language stating that it is now even more important for our national and state organizations to build alliances with consumer groups and other agricultural organizations so as to leverage our political effectiveness.
Many of NFU’s newest members are raising specialty crops and taking advantage of direct marketing opportunities. The delegates added a policy statement encouraging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help create regional food hub distribution centers in order to create new aggregation, marketing, processing and distribution opportunities for specialty crop growers. They also added language supporting specific training and education for state and county Farm Service Agency/Natural Resources Conservation Service staff on helping beginning farmers and ranchers access programs, with emphasis on specialty crops and alternative enterprises. Finally, delegates added explicit language supporting incentives for all federal nutrition program beneficiaries (e.g. the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children [WIC], etc.) to use their benefits at farmers markets, CSAs and other direct marketing outlets.
There were several changes to dairy provisions, such as adding support for the production and sale of raw milk, including between states, and a recommendation that it be bottled as the product of a single source to prevent cross-contamination. Delegates also added language opposing the addition of artificial sweeteners to dairy products, and, if added, support for clearly labeling them.
Given NFU’s long history of supporting accurate, informative and consumer-friendly food labels, it was not surprising that delegates added support for additional labeling provisions, such as foods made from or containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and producer-determined standards for geographic indicators, including the percentage coming from that origin.
Predictably, a number of policy amendments addressed farm safety net programs. Delegates voted to remain supportive of placing a limit on the cumulative value of all federal premium subsidies for the purchase of “buy-up” crop insurance coverage, but removed the specific reference to a $75,000 per individual limit to afford more flexibility to the organization’s advocacy. Delegates also added language further supporting NFU’s voluntary, farmer-owned, market-driven commodity inventory system concept to provide an effective farm safety net and reduce volatility in agricultural commodity markets.
Delegates significantly expanded NFU’s immigration policy, reflecting this issue’s status near the top of our nation’s political agenda. Some of the new principles NFU supports include a pathway to citizenship or legal residency for undocumented agricultural workers that does not restrict their employment to any specific farm, the DREAM Act, simplifying the H-2A program by removing overly burdensome requirements, and an agricultural worker visa program that includes both seasonal and full-time, year-round workers.
A hallmark of NFU has always been supporting diversity and equal opportunities for involvement in the organization, as well as support for freedom and equal opportunity for all citizens, regardless of demographics such as color, sex, and national origin. This year delegates expanded and updated this list of demographics to include support for equal opportunities regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and religion.
Research is critical to addressing some of the challenges our modern food and agriculture system faces. Delegates added language opposing the establishment of a National Bio-and Agro-Defense research facility (such as the facility formerly located in Plum Island, N.Y.), in any location critical to food production (such as the new location in Manhattan, Kan.). However, if built on the mainland United States, adequate and continuous funding and rigorous standards of containment must be developed to reduce biosecurity risk, and the government should assume complete liability should containment not be successful. Delegates also adopted amendments support utilization of the epidemiological model pioneered by the University of Minnesota in tracking foodborne illnesses, funding for research and technical advancement of energy storage systems, USDA research on the effects of GMO feeds on livestock, emergency funding for applied research and integrated pest management programs when appropriate, and continued federal support of the National Drought Mitigation Center.
NFU members know the importance of farm safety, and added language supporting standardized hazard and caution lights and distinct turn signals on all farm equipment that uses public roadways, and discouraging the use of slow-moving vehicle emblems for purposes other than their intended use.
Farmers Union has always supported aid for the hungry, both in the United States and abroad, and fair trade principles that value all farmers. Delegates added policy explicitly supporting P.L. 480, the federal food aid program also known as Food for Peace, and opposing the monetization of U.S. food aid. New language was also added to NFU’s trade policy supporting additional sensitivity to developing nations, i.e. respecting their food sovereignty by not undercutting the price of their local staples, adequate compensation of indigenous peoples for the consumption of their resources, opposition to the dumping of agricultural products in developing countries which puts local farmers out of business and destabilizes local economies, and opposition to the forced removal of indigenous peoples from their traditional homelands.
NFU has extensive policy on both renewable and nonrenewable energy production, and new provisions include support for funds received from sale of public water that displaces hydroelectric generation being returned to the generating authority; maintained support for the Renewable Fuel Standard, but with new language specifying support should be consistent with grain availability for livestock production; mandatory disclosure of the chemicals, including percentages, used in fracking and drilling fluids and ensuring these chemicals are environmentally safe before use; and mandatory monitoring of possible groundwater contamination and oversight of saltwater disposal systems.
On tax issues, delegates adopted a few new principles; namely, supporting a simplified tax code; permanently maintaining the federal estate tax exemption per individual at $5 million, indexed annually for inflation; and studying the inclusion of a federal mechanism to equalize the effect of foreign consumption taxes on trade.
Financial regulation is another timely issue, and delegates added language supporting vigorous investigation and prosecution of criminal activity in our financial institutions and monitoring activity on “dark markets,” defined as secretive, unregulated (though often technically legal) trading in commodity futures.
Political representation is key to ensuring rural constituents can make their voices heard, and delegates supported principles addressing this issue, such as broad enforcement of the equal-time rule governing the media coverage given to candidates for public office, ensuring vote counting software is subject to oversight to ensure accuracy, requiring political campaigns to adhere to the “do not call” list, and removing politics from the redistricting process.
Finally, delegates supported a number of other miscellaneous but important issues: raising the current full hazmat protocol requirements threshold for portable fuel tanks from the current 108 gallons level to a more appropriate size of 1,000 gallons; Congress repealing the Jones Act, which requires that goods and passengers transported by water between U.S. ports be done in U.S.-made ships, owned by U.S. citizens and crewed by U.S. citizens; and greater billing transparency for telecommunication services and opposition to federal, state or local taxes and fees on telecommunications services.
Each year Farmers Union delegates also adopt special orders of business, which are policy priorities that the membership wants to place particular emphasis on in the coming year. This year’s special orders address the crisis in the dairy industry, a new five-year farm bill, rulemaking and implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, Saturday mail delivery, foot and mouth disease in Argentina, and regulatory relief for rural financial institutions.