The season of paperwork, repairs and planning starts at our farm during the weeks immediately following Thanksgiving. It is also the point when we have a little more time to interact with other farmers. This is our opportunity to talk about successes, failures and future plans with people who have the experience to appreciate what we do.
This year, the selection of the new Secretary of Agriculture has taken a significant amount of space in our farmer discussions. At present, it seems that former Secretary Tom Vilsack will serve once again. While many who are tracking this appointment are skeptical of the choice, conversations I've been part of are now focusing less on "who" and more on "what" we want from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the coming years.
The purpose of the USDA
The Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for the agenda of the USDA and its functions. I was curious to see how the USDA presents its purpose to the public, and this is what I found:
We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management.
We have a vision to provide economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve our Nation's natural resources through conservation, restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.
This is the face the USDA believes it is showing to the people it serves. Like any purpose statement, there is plenty of room for interpretation and disagreement. But, I found myself starting to dream what things might be like if parts of this mission were actually fulfilled.
Helping rural America thrive
If one of the goals of the USDA is to help rural America thrive, it is about time for leadership to make changes because that goal has been neglected for decades.
The USDA must address the issue of land access and the continuing process of farmland consolidation. We have endured a string of administrations, including Vilsack’s last tenure, that have done nothing to slow migration of land control to absentee owners and large corporations. Instead, we need to facilitate the redistribution of land to landowners who are present and will be active stewards for that land.
We need to provide bridges for the next generation. While the status quo promotes farm consolidation, it fails to support young and new farmers who are looking to enter the profession. If we build a system that provides support for a wider range of production alternatives, we will also provide multiple entry-points for individuals who wish to farm.
The new Secretary of Agriculture must address the loss of small scale infrastructure in agriculture. Our rural areas were once rich with local seed houses, grain millers, poultry and livestock processors, and small scale food distribution operations. Reviving these local systems will provide the small to midsize farms with a chance to be price makers rather than price takers and provide more opportunities for individuals to find meaningful employment.
It is time for the Secretary of Agriculture to take a hand in rural health care and other public services. If the USDA is serious about their commitment to thriving rural areas, then they need to be part of the solution for places in our nation where communication services, physical and mental health services and transportation services are rarely a profitable endeavor — but no less necessary.
Preserve our natural resources and provide nourishment
Another strong theme in the USDA’s mission is to care for our natural resources and address hunger. While we might agree with the principles, the USDA has pushed us away from land and resource stewardship and towards unhealthy foods.
There needs to be a new commitment to changing our subsidy structures so they reward farming practices that support natural processes, clean water ways, healthy soils, diversified farm landscapes, and reasonably scaled production. We need to give a hard working farm family the opportunity to earn a decent living for their efforts without sacrificing habitat, soil health, and the well-being of neighbors.
A significant part of these changes must lead us away from production for the purpose of creating processed foods. The pandemic very clearly showed that our food chain is not resilient as it is. Policies need to change to support the production and distribution of healthy, unprocessed foods.
The USDA paints a picture that they are leaders in agriculture, food systems, and land stewardship. If that were the case, it would not be so easy for large agribusiness entities to push their agenda through. If leadership is the goal, then they must stand up for those who do not have power, protecting them from those who do. If the USDA would lead, they should work to move us to a just and healthy food system.
The USDA needs to halt chemical trespass so all farmers have the opportunity to farm successfully without the added wildcard presented by drift or misapplication of pesticides that may destroy a season's crops. And, it is necessary that we force large agribusiness to prove the safety of their products before they are approved for use, rather than fighting the removal of products even when damages are discovered after the fact.
The USDA seems to have forgotten that innovation often comes in small packages. Rather than looking for the next GE corn or a major breakthrough in pesticides, we should be supporting local and regional solutions by people who are in tune with their surroundings.
USDA as it was meant to be
Regardless of the individual who sits in the Secretary of Agriculture’s office in the coming years, they need to be encouraged to make the USDA what it should have been all along. Perhaps we can open their eyes by showing them their own mission statement and encouraging them to act upon it.
Right now, we subsidize agribusiness instead of agriculture. We promote farming systems that pollute and destroy instead of employing established systems that work with nature. We move economic benefits out of rural areas and give them to international corporations. And, we struggle to get healthy food to some of those who need it the most.
In this moment of transition, we have an opportunity to influence incoming leadership before they settle into business as usual. We must act together and advocate for the USDA we want and need. We have an opportunity to change this — let’s make it happen.