By Stephen Leslie
I recently had the honor and privilege to represent Nofa-Vt at the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) DC Fly-in that took place this year from February 6-8th. It’s my wish to share here with TNF readers a few reflections on that experience.
NFFC was founded in 1986 to be a voice for farmers, ranchers & fishers in Washington. The coalition comprises thirty member groups (including Nofa) in forty-two states. NFFC’s stated mission is to; “…..fight for farmer rights, fair prices, clean air and water, strong local economies, the right to sell and buy locally-grown and -processed food, the right to be free from corporate domination, the right to live in vibrant and healthy rural communities….”
The trip to our nation’s capitol exceeded my expectations both with the meaningful encounters with the congressional staffers (and two house members!)---- and all the great new friendships and invaluable networking with NFFC staff and regional reps. The NFFC staff did a tremendous job coordinating the trip, from arranging travel logistics & accommodations to strategic planning & implementation of the meetings with staffers. In total there were 25 participants, coming from 15 of NFFC's 32 organizations, who visited 32 offices and spent 16 hours educating our legislators.
Participants were divided into four teams: Local Food, Land Access, Farm Credit, & Dairy
I was part of the Dairy team, tasked with introducing NFFC's Milk from Family Dairies Act. All the teams met on our first night to get acquainted and strategize. On the Dairy team we had:
Jim & Rebecca Goodman---retired organic dairy farmers from Wisconsin (Jim is on the NFFC board).
Sarah Gilliat---goat farmer & cheese maker from NH (NOFA-NH)
Betsy Garrold---farmer & food activist from Maine (Food For Maine's Future)
Megan EienVos---Farm to School program coordinator & rural community organizer from S. Dakota (Dakota Rural Action)
Siena Chrisman---NFFC staff & lead author of the Milk from Family Dairies Act
On 2/7 the Dairy team met with staffers from five house representatives:
Rep. Kuster, D-NH
Rep. Pocan D-WI
Rep. Golden D-ME
Rep. Duarte R-CA
Rep. Pingree D-ME
On 2/8 we met with staffers from another house rep and two senators:
Rep. Khana D-CA
Sen. Sanders D-VT
Sen. Smith D-MN
Our team quickly developed an effective strategy of having Siena introduce the Dairy Act and then having team members share personal testimony and policy recommendations. Our team was well-prepped and we played off each other's strengths. I was quite impressed with the degree of agricultural literacy reflected in the questions of many of the staffers. In every case, the dialogue felt genuine and fruitful.
Leading up to the trip I was feeling some angst about supporting a proposal that might extend the life of a consolidating (& polluting) conventional dairy industry in VT. Even though I had studied the NFFC proposal, it wasn't until I heard Siena explain it, that I understood how it could radically reform the dairy sector through a non-monetized national quota system---incentivizing small & mid-size farms and de-consolidating the CAFO-style operations.
For my part, I spoke to the trend of massive consolidation in our state: 2500 dairies in 1975 to less than 500 in 2023---all the while producing approximately the same volume of milk. I spoke up for the migrant workers often forced to live and work in sub-par conditions on large farms. I talked about my own small diversified & value-added dairy farm, and how in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service we have seen huge improvements in soil health and yields through stacking soil health practices, such as intensive management grazing, silvopasture, riparian buffers, pollinator hedgerow, compost application, & cover cropping. I emphasized the need for USDA to funnel more conservation dollars to fully fund the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and to ensure that Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) dollars are not spent to prop up large farm operations.
Jim Goodman and others consistently advocated for tightening up the enforcement of the organic rules to make sure small farmers get a fair shake and to disincentivize CAFO-style operations in the organic dairy sector.
In addition to making new friends, I also had great comradeship of Rural-VT’s legislative director, Caroline Gordon, and Mary Lake, a sheep farmer, professional shearer & on-farm butcher, who were both on the Local Food team---advocating for the right to on-farm-slaughter.
One morning while sitting at breakfast at our uber-chic-cyber-punk hotel, I had a wonderful conversation with Leonardo Wasille, a Yupik fisherman, farmer & CPA from Alaska. Leo told me some of his life journeys that reflected the deep resilience of the Yupik people. When I described to him the efforts we were making to restore our farmland he commented, "You are calling back the salmon!"
A couple of unexpected high notes occurred during meetings with staffers when in two instances the representatives themselves unexpectedly joined our meetings----Rep. Chellie Pingree D-ME (one of my congressional heroes) & Rep. Golden D-ME each gave us some quality time.
Well, that's just a thumbnail sketch of the trip----but I hope it gives you a sense of the great work NFFC and all its affiliates are doing knocking on the doors of power, advocating for small farmers, and forwarding a farm bill agenda that will bring meaningful change.
Many thanks to Grace Oedel & Maddie Kempner and the whole Nofa-VT team for entrusting me to be a farmer representative---and for everyone involved who offered such amazing support of this initiative!
Stephen Leslie is a co-owner of Cedar Mountain Farm & Cobb Hill Cheese in Hartland, VT