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  • Sarah Gilliatt

Policy: To Civic Engagement in Life-Affirming Agricultural Policy

Report on the Recent NFFC Fly-in from Sarah Gilliatt

Having just participated in the

(NFFC) 2023 Fly-in to Washington, DC between February 6-8th, I return home feeling deeply grateful, inspired, and re-committed for the long haul that is political organizing.

The NFFC is comprised of thirty-five member farm and fishing advocacy organizations representing forty-five states. Its mission is “to mobilize family farmers, ranchers, and fishermen to achieve fair prices, vibrant communities, and healthy foods free of corporate domination.” Born of the farm crisis of the 1980s, NFFC’s work comes from years of experience and deep analysis – an analysis that is rare and precious in its depth; in my mind, the NFFC is doing some of the most systemic and structural work to truly address the root causes of our out-of-balance agricultural system.

This fly-in was a living, breathing example of extremely skillful organizing. Antonio Tovar as Senior Policy Associate and Jordan Treakle as National Program Coordinator provided the guidance and training before our trip to DC to get us all on the same page regarding our Hill visits. While there were veteran Hill advocates in our group, for many of us it was our first time, so a couple of Zoom sessions in advance helped to make us all feel at ease, even with the nervousness some of us felt at times in imagining speaking with politicians. Upon arrival, we met together with our issue groups to get to know each other and develop our talking points. After the first day of congressional visits, we met for a debrief before dinner, hearing back from each of the four-issue groups. Dinner provided time to enjoy one another socially, ask questions and learn from one another, and have fun. Indeed fun and connection are never in short supply at NFFC gatherings – that is yet another ingredient to fine organizing! And going forward, after returning home, we will have further opportunities to de-brief with our issue groups and to continue to move our policy efforts forward.

The twenty-five of us who attended the fly-in split into 4 issue groups: Land Access, Farm Credit, Local Food, and Dairy. While we each had NFFC Farm Bill platforms to give to legislators, it was vital that we were focused during our 30-minute slots on our particular issue areas, articulating a succinct ask together with personal stories. We also allowed time to answer questions from the Staffer or Congress Member.

In the dairy group, we were very fortunate to have Sienna Chrisman who was a key researcher and writer of the “Milk from Family Dairies Act”, which was the policy ask from our team. We had both a short and long description of the proposal to provide the details.

As the materials (which are available on NFFC’s website) describe, the requirement to “get big or get out” is the result of the low prices dairy farmers receive for their milk, especially in comparison to the ever-rising costs of production. While this structural pressure to produce more and more creates grave externalized outcomes that largely frontline communities and future generations bare, and will be forced to bare, the opportunities for updated, more life-affirming policies certainly could be put in place. The Milk from Family Dairies Act proposes just that through a suite of mutually reinforcing mechanisms including

  1. Supply management and Price Floors that meet costs of production

  2. Better dairy import and export controls

  3. Stronger regional dairy infrastructure

  4. Measures to break up dairy market concentration

Farmers, who often express that they don’t get larger because of an inherent desire to do so, but instead on account of economic necessity, can potentially have increased quality of life with businesses less focused on yield. Greater financial viability could also encourage more regenerative practices that are often labor-intensive but also cost-saving to farmers. These soil-building practices in turn benefit communities as communities become more resilient to floods and droughts and mitigate climate change with healthier water cycles and carbon sequestration. With financial viability for dairy farmers, the gutting of our rural communities could be turned around and a greater community fabric could provide people with a healthy sense of belonging.

One of the guiding principles of NFFC is that of “Building Common Ground.” As their website explains, “Food and fiber are basic human needs that must be met in ways that bring people of all political perspectives together through common values that promote economic, human, and environmental health.” And indeed, the Dairy from Family Farms Act can and did resonate with staffers of various political persuasions during our visit. For example, the significant taxpayer savings that would result from such a policy, given the reduced need for Margin Protection Insurance that goes to filling some of the gaps between dairy producers’ costs of production and the price they get from the processors, was of great interest to Republican staffers. Rebecca Goodman, a retired dairy farmer from Wisconsin who was put out of business on account of a flood of underpriced organic milk, and Megan EienVos, a niece of a dairy farmer from South Dakota, both described the profound breakdown in rural America, stressing the need for legislators to be responsive to rural America’s crises. With Republicans dominant in the House, Republican sponsorship will be important. It seems vital that politicians of all political persuasions have platforms that are sufficiently transformative to address the root causes of our multi-dimensional, urgent, and existential problems. Perhaps it is only in such bold and humble ways that our political candidates can be compelling and persuasive to voters in the years ahead.

While pushback from processors (who would be forced to pay more for milk than they are currently doing) can be expected in the road ahead (Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine admitted candidly that the primary challenge will be the powerful agricultural lobby), everyone, including those very processors, can benefit from fair prices to farmers. Indeed, even the processors will ultimately benefit in very real ways -- for in the current situation, one could say they have the best seat on the Titanic! After all, processors also depend on healthy soil, water cycles, clean air, community fabric, and healthy rural economies.

One morning, as we walked from our hotel to the Senate offices, Stephen Leslie, dairy farmer and cheesemaker from Vermont, said so eloquently how he is convinced that our democracy will not survive without people taking actions like we were doing on this visit. The wholehearted conviction of his words struck me so deeply. The next day, in this historical moment, both dangerous and opportune, I visited the Lincoln Memorial and the words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address felt as poignant as ever: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. . . . that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom – and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Not at all to be grandiose, but it felt like, in our small and humble ways, we had been doing just this on those two days. It was invigorating and inspiring. Congress members listened to us intently and it seemed they were refreshed to hear from regular folk rather than just slick lobbyists.

So, may this be a joyful plea that we go forth in confidence, as we speak with our neighbors of all stripes, and as we visit our public servants at the local, county, state and federal levels. After all, food, farming, and fishing policies impact just about all aspects of our lives and we humans write the rules – and we can re-write them to work for all of us, for other species, and for our beloved mother.

Sarah used to be a member of the NOFA - NH board and was Chair of its Policy Committee.

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