Next Farm Bill Can Plant the Seeds for Something Better
NRDC recommendations around U.S. farm policy would, if adopted, help rebuild rural communities, create clean energy jobs, support new and existing organic farmers, bolster soil health and on-farm conservation, and reduce food waste.
Congress is ramping up to begin writing the next Farm Bill. Over its 5-year course, this massive legislation will direct upwards of $430 billion in taxpayer funds to shape our farm and food system. Our current system leaves rural America, its farms, and farmers and ranchers vulnerable to potentially massive losses related to climate change and ecosystem collapse. But it does not have to be this way.
In late July, inside a pole barn on the Peterson family farm outside of Northfield, MN, I gave testimony to a field hearing of the House Agriculture Committee, hosted by Reps. Cheri Bustos and Angie Craig (pictured below). Video of this hearing, and several others held thus far, are available here. NRDC's written comments and recommendations were later shared with the full Committee, as well.
If they become part of next year's Farm Bill, our recommendations would lead to public investments helping to:
- Build jobs and resilience in rural communities;
- Rebuild deteriorating rural water infrastructure;
- Empower farmers to succeed by adopting innovations to help mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts;
- Reduce food waste; and
- Greatly expand support for existing organic farmers, as well new and previously underserved farmers trying to transition to organic production.
NRDC Written Comments for the Public Record to the House Agriculture Committee
Part of safeguarding the Earth is to consider what we eat and how we produce our food, since they are inextricably linked to climate change. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) therefore appreciates this opportunity, on behalf of our three million members and advocates, to provide written testimony to the Committee highlighting the great potential for the 2023 Farm Bill to help protect our climate, enhance soil health and other biodiversity, and build healthier and more resilient communities.
NRDC works to safeguard the Earth – its people, its plants, and its animals, and the natural systems on which life depends. While in some respects our current food and farm system poses threats to our health and environment, the next Farm Bill can plant and grow the seeds for something better. Scaled-up investments in climate-smart forestry and agriculture, combined with an expanded rural clean energy economy, will make our farming communities more resilient. They also will empower farmers to help mitigate the biodiversity and climate challenges that threaten farmers’ crops, and their way of life. Finally, these investments will help farmers navigate the financial, technical, and social challenges that may arise as they innovate. Additionally, however, to maximize their benefits to public health, to ecosystems, and to local economies and communities, these public investments must also prioritize the needs of historically underserved and under-resourced populations.
I. RURAL JOBS AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Clean Energy Jobs in Rural America. Clean energy jobs are one path to economic prosperity in rural communities. A shift to a cleaner economy will expand income opportunities for producers and small businesses, reduce volatility and enhance the predictability of energy costs for farmers, consumers, and other rural businesses, and create major new job opportunities.
According to the Clean Jobs America 2021 report, released by E2, the clean energy economy is inherently local.1 In rural nonmetropolitan statical areas, there are nearly 400,000 workers (about 13%) of the entire clean energy workforce – and for many rural states, clean energy jobs account for significantly more than that.2 In Minnesota, this translates into 12,279 (or 22.2%) of total statewide clean energy jobs.3 Nationally, one-quarter of all clean energy jobs are in rural areas in 21 states, and in four states more than half of clean energy jobs are rural.
While a clean energy transition will help the nation as a whole to confront the climate crisis, we want to ensure people in rural communities will benefit sooner from all the economic benefits that transition provides. To that end, it is important for the USDA in moving forward to support companies in rural communities that are helping farmers and rural consumers transition to cleaner energy. We urge Congress to fund the USDA to speed up the deployment of rural clean energy, business development and job training, particularly for traditionally under-resourced and underserved rural communities. USDA should continue and expand its support for the Rural Energy for America Program and also support the transition to clean energy of rural electricity coops and utilities.
Civilian Climate Corps. President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 at a time when the nation desperately needed jobs—and hope. Today we are at a similar moment. We also face the twin environmental challenges of biodiversity collapse and climate change. Charting the path forward for an equitable, climate-resilient recovery is hard work—work that requires pragmatism and vision.
USDA should support and pilot a program that mimics the CCC and expand it into private lands. The Forest Service has a deep connection to CCC programs, but private lands could also benefit from a revived and modern program operating on these lands. The program could connect farmers and ranchers with a civilian workforce to take on agriculture projects that increase biodiversity, restore critical wildlife habitat, increase carbon sequestration on working lands, and improve access to nature. The USDA agencies, Forest Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service and even the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) have a role to play. And this proposal would mirror the small but significant FY 22 and FY 23 budget proposals USDA made to pilot an APHIS CCC hub to cultivate the next generation of growers, create good agricultural jobs for underemployed Americans, promote rural entrepreneurship and rural economic development.
II. WATER INFRASTRUCTURE
Much of our nation’s water infrastructure is like an old, rusty car which for decades has gone without an oil change or a brake job. This critical infrastructure desperately needs fixes and upgrades, and public investment to make that happen. Without those investments, the source of clean, safe drinking water for many of us will collapse, bit by bit, or perhaps catastrophically fail. There are three underlying causes:
(1) Underinvestment in our water infrastructure so water systems too often rely on outdated and inadequate treatment and distribution systems;
(2) A broken Safe Drinking Water Act that leaves unregulated widespread and hazardous contaminants like PFAS and allows weak enforcement the drinking water standards that do exist; and
(3) Poor to nonexistent controls on many major water polluters. Low-income areas often lack any access to effective sanitation or safe, piped drinking water.
Despite our many efforts and successes to date, drinking water contamination still wreaks devastating impacts. An estimated 7.1 to as many as 12 million Americans are sickened annually by pathogen-contaminated tap and other water – and this does not include the impacts of toxics. Tens of millions are served by water systems violating EPA’s health standards. There are 9-12 million leaded service lines nationwide, and school children drinking lead-contaminated water is a widespread problem. Tens of millions of Americans, perhaps more than 100 million, are drinking tap water polluted with PFAS “forever” chemicals
In Minnesota, rural well water often has too-high arsenic levels, and is often contaminated by bacteria or nitrates, as well. In new wells drilled in the state since 2008, arsenic is detected (typically, the level of detection is around 2 µg/L) in 40 percent of them; around 10% of Minnesota's private wells have arsenic levels higher than 10 µg/L.4,5 Drinking water containing any arsenic can increase the risks of developing risks cancer and other serious health effects. Arsenic is in groundwater throughout the state, but it is more likely in some areas.
In central Minnesota, up to 60% of groundwater samples from monitoring wells are contaminated with nitrate well beyond the safe drinking water standard; Goodhue and Hastings are among the small cities listed by MPCA as having excessive nitrates in drinking water.6 Nitrate-contaminated drinking water can lead to illnesses such as Blue Baby Syndrome, which is potentially fatal in infants.
Minnesota Department of Health testing of water systems across the state for contamination with toxic forever chemicals per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has found widespread contamination of drinking water.7 This occurs in both large systems and in many rural areas. Cleanup of this drinking water will be crucial to protecting public health.
Additionally, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), there are estimated to be 100,000 lead service lines remaining in the state.8 MDH has found that removing these lead service lines would cost from $228 million dollars to $365 million dollars, but for the children who would benefit the gain in IQ and lifetime earnings would be from 5.8 to more than 18 times higher than the costs. The estimated benefits to children, in other words, would be worth $2.1 billion to $4.2 billion.9 These enormous benefits still are likely underestimates, according to MDH. Left out of those estimates, for example, was the estimated dollar value from reduced cardiovascular disease and deaths, and reductions in other chronic diseases, that would be the outcome of reduced exposure to lead in water service lines.
The Farm Bill, along with other legislative vehicles, presents a unique opportunity to further tackle this issue, including the opportunity to:
- Invest additional resources in fixing our water infrastructure, paying special attention to the affordability and needs of lower-income and disproportionately affected communities.
- Fund fixes to lead in our water, including removing lead service lines in rural areas.
In addition to addressing these urgent needs in the Farm Bill, we urge Committee members to work with your colleagues include those serving on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to fix the Safe Drinking Water Act. That law has failed to effectively control many drinking water contaminants such as the class of forever chemicals called PFAS and other threats to public health from tap water contamination. We also urge Committee members to work with your colleagues to fund investments in water infrastructure –including in rural communities –through reconciliation, appropriations, and other moving legislative vehicles. Additionally, we urge you to press the Environmental Protection Agency to swiftly overhaul its weak Lead and Copper Rule, which Administrator Regan and Vice President Harris have said needs to be strengthened, to address lead problems like those experienced in Flint, MI and many cities, small towns and schools in Minnesota and across the country.
The 2023 Farm Bill is an opportunity to break significant ground on the pathways for regenerative agriculture. Over the last two years, NRDC interviewed over 100 regenerative farmers in 47 states, including Kent Solberg of Seven Pines Farm in Minnesota. These interviews revealed a deep interest in the pathways for regenerative agriculture and its foundational premise – that Regenerative Agriculture is an approach towards greater adoption of agricultural practices that are in harmony with the earth, and also a vehicle towards greater economic independence.
The Farm Bill represents a critical tool to curb climate change, promote adaptation, and empower farmers.
Permanent Extension of the Good Steward Cover Crop Program (FCIP). Cover cropping is one regenerative practice that offers a multitude of benefits, including helping farmers to maintain productivity in the face of climate change. Recognizing these benefits the Biden Administration has, for the past two years, offered farmers who plant cover crops a “good steward” incentive through their federal crop insurance.10 In the first year of the program, 12 million acres participated, including 645,000 acres in Minnesota; in 2021, Minnesota producers received more than $3.1 million in funding under the program. Congress should expand on this important program and authorize a permanent incentive for farmers who use cover crops and build soil health. A permanent program would be a cost-effective way to encourage farmers to adopt risk-mitigating practice like cover-cropping, but also would provide farmers with an additional measure of certainty to be factored into the decision of whether they can afford to buy cover crop seeds.
Extend and Expand the Soil Health Demonstration Trial. The 2018 Farm Bill created a visionary program at NRCS, called “On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials”. Its goal was to foster more widespread adoption of innovative on-farm conservation practices. One program component has been the Soil Health Demonstration (SHD) Trial which has focused exclusively on fostering innovation around practices that improve soil health. The program should be made permanent and expanded to allow more farmers and more regions to benefit from soil health innovation.
Build Agroforestry Capacity. USDA needs clearer and more direct authorities in agroforestry, a form of regenerative agriculture rooted in traditional Indigenous land management. These authorities are critical to help rebuild riparian forest buffers; incorporate trees into livestock pastures; and support alley cropping, forest farming, and windbreaks. USDA has several tools to work with, including the National Agroforestry Center, the USDA Strategic Plan in agroforestry, and the authorities in both EQIP and within the State and Private Forestry program. However, USDA’s authorities for the Forest Service and the Natural Resource Conversation Service in agroforestry are limited and lack a holistic and consistent implementation within USDA. Congress should guide USDA to scale these capacities to support farmers and ranchers who wish to invest in regenerative agroforestry.
IV. FOOD WASTE
In the 2023 Farm Bill development process, we urge the Committee and Congresswoman Craig to utilize our newly released report, “Opportunities to Reduce Food Waste in the 2023 Farm Bill,” that outlines 22 specific recommendations for actions Congress should take to reduce food waste in the 2023 Farm Bill.11 Given the bipartisan support for measures to reduce food waste and demonstrated successes from the food waste measures in the previous Farm Bill, the 2023 Farm Bill provides an exciting opportunity to invest in food waste reduction efforts for greater social, economic, and environmental benefits. Most of the recommendations would have a direct impact on food waste at the state and local level, and the state and local governments’ ability to address food waste. A couple examples of recommendations that would better enable states like Minnesota to address food waste include:
Provide Grants and Loans for Food Waste Processing Infrastructure. Organics make up about one-third of the waste stream in Minnesota, which is similar to rates across the country.12 The lack of adequate infrastructure and services makes recycling of organic material – particularly food waste – a challenge, however. Though organics recycling has steadily increased in Minnesota over the last decade, only 13 of the 172 permitted composting facilities in Minnesota accept food waste.
To keep organic waste out of landfills and reduce impacts on the climate, environment and health, public investment is needed to help communities develop their organic waste processing capabilities. In addition, according to a 2020 EPA report, composting creates twice as many jobs as landfills.13 In the next farm bill, Congress should amend the Community Compost and Food Waste Reduction Project program to increase the total and per project funding available, reduce or eliminate the matching requirement, and expand the list of eligible entities who may apply for grant funding to also include state governments, as well as nongovernmental organizations and community groups that work with partners in rural locations or across regions.
In addition, Congress should increase funding for the Solid Waste Management Grant (SWMG) program and the Water and Waste Disposal Loans and Grant program, continue to /prioritize projects in which the implementing agencies prioritize food waste reduction, and consider extending the SWMG program to two years. Congress should also create funding streams along the lines envisioned in the COMPOST Act of 2021 and Zero Food Waste Act of 2021 to support new compost and anaerobic digestion infrastructure.14.15
Support Compost End Markets. Creating end markets for compost products will simultaneously store carbon in working lands and support increased composting. By giving compost facilities a market to sell compost, the facilities may be able to reduce their tipping fees and draw more food waste generators to compost rather than landfill their waste. In turn, this will make composting a more viable and less expensive option than throwing organic waste materials in a landfill. Farmers in Minnesota and beyond can also benefit from compost end markets as they can use the soil amendment products derived from composting or anaerobic digestion (compost products) to improve the quality of their soil. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Transportation already support expanded end markets for compost by encouraging use of compost in a wide array of projects that help protect groundwater and surface water while preventing erosion. In order to bolster state and local efforts to realize the social and environmental benefits of composting, Congress should create a crop insurance premium incentive program that pays farmers a per acre bonus for applying compost products to their fields before planting, modeled after the Pandemic Cover Crop Program (PCCP). Congress also should increase federal procurement of compost products containing recycled organic waste materials, by requiring federal agencies to prioritize purchasing of compost made from recycled organic waste materials when purchasing landscaping services.
If implemented, the recommendations in the aforementioned Farm Bill report would support Minnesota’s efforts to ensure food feeds people first, and food waste is reduced. Through food waste reduction, plus composting of any remaining food, the state could mitigate the environmental consequences of food waste as well.
ORGANIC / NUTRITION
Most people buy organic because they want to eat healthier. But the health benefits of organic agriculture extend far beyond individual dinner plates. Organic farmers produce healthy food without toxic pesticides and use climate-friendly practices that lower greenhouse gas emissions and boost resiliency. Local and regional food producers—including areas where organic farming is highly concentrated—can also provide critical economic stability in rural communities. The 2023 Farm Bill offers an opportunity to continue long-standing support of organic farmers and ranchers in Minnesota and throughout the country.
Adoption of new procurement priorities for the USDA Farm to School program. California launched a new Farm to School program in 2021. Like all farm to school programs, including Minnesota’s, the program in California seeks to improve the health and well-being of its most vulnerable children, while creating much needed stable markets for the state’s smaller scale farmers and ranchers. It dispersed $8.5M in grants during its first year and is poised to spend up to $30M this year to support local school food procurement. California's approach is unique, however, because it commits to giving school districts extra resources when they purchase from local growers using organic and other climate-smart systems and practices. In the next Farm Bill, the federal Farm to School program should adopt California’s approach and offer schools around the country who prioritize climate-smart organic procurement larger grants.
Authorize and Fund New Federal Organic & Regenerative Transition Programs. To encourage more producers to pursue organic agriculture and realize the full potential of its climate, health, biodiversity and other benefits, the next Farm Bill needs to continue to prioritize well-funded transition programs for organic farmers. It will be especially important to provide producer grants and expanded region-specific technical assistance. The 2018 Farm Bill included several programs to ease the path forward for organic producers.
To expand on that work, the upcoming Farm Bill should establish a new organic transition program targeted specially to underserved farmers and ranchers, including producers of color, in Minnesota and beyond. They are the producers for whom the uncertainty during the three-year organic certification process poses the highest hurdle to success. Smaller-scale farmers, and especially farmers of color, typically operate on profit margins that are very thin. For these producers, the process of transitioning to organic status is long and hard, with a steep learning curve; that transition also adds to these farmers’ financial risk, however.
During the transition period, federal law mandates these farmers to rely exclusively on practices that improve soil health, foster biodiversity, reduce reliance on harmful, fossil-fuel based pesticides and fertilizers, and more. During transition, however, even while they are investing time and money in these practices that are fully compliant with organic standards, there is no additional financial return generated since their products cannot be marketed and sold as organic. This transition program would level the playing field, empowering more producers with essential support that brings organic within closer reach.
Increase Funding for Existing Organic Programs. Increase funding for existing organic programs, especially those that focus on cost-share, research, and the provision of technical assistance will help make healthy, locally grown and climate-smart food accessible to more Michigan families and around the country. These include the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), the Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP), Organic Transitions Program (ORG), and others like the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program that serve the needs of both organic and regenerative producers.
Our current food system leaves farms, rural America, farmers, and ranchers vulnerable to potentially massive losses related to climate change and ecosystem collapse. But it does not have to be this way.
With targeted Farm Bill policy changes and investments, we can address the health of our air, water and food, the health of food workers and the public; access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food, and racial inequity. At the same time, the 2023 Farm Bill offers the opportunity to scale up public investment to help realize a clean energy economy in rural America, bringing more job opportunities to rural communities. These investments could also replace and/or upgrade critical rural infrastructure that is now failing, such as leaded water pipes, and which deprives people across Minnesota and the nation, especially those in lower-income rural areas, from having reliable access to sanitation and safe drinking water.
While we have the opportunity, Congress should take the most aggressive steps possible to address these issues through the Farm Bill.
1. E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs) is a national, nonpartisan group of business leaders, investors, and professionals from every sector of the economy who advocate for smart policies that are good for the economy and good for the environment. E2 members have founded or funded more than 2,500 companies, created more than 600,000 jobs, and manage more than $100 billion in venture and private equity capital. E2 releases more than a dozen clean energy employment reports annually—including Clean Jobs America—with state-specific reports covering more than 20 states every year.
2. Clean Jobs America 2021, https://www.powermag.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/e2-2021-clean-jobs-….
3. Ibid. Table 6, U.S. Rural Area Clean Energy Employment by State, 2020.
4. Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), “Arsenic in Well Water”, access at https://www.health.state.mn.us/communities/environment/water/wells/wate…. For community water systems, the EPA has set a goal of zero, but 10 µg/L is the agency’s EPA’s maximum contaminant level for arsenic.
5. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Contaminated groundwater concerns mount in Minnesota, February 24, 2016, https://www.pca.state.mn.us/featured/contaminated-groundwater-concerns-….
7. See Minnesota Department of Health, PFAS Testing of Community Water Systems. Access at https://mdh.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=63515695237….
8. Minnesota Department of Health, Lead in Minnesota Water: Assessment of Eliminating Lead in Minnesota Drinking Water, Feb. 2019, Updated March 8, 2019. Access at https://www.health.state.mn.us/communities/environment/water/docs/leadr….
9. Ibid at 25, Table 4.
10. The Pandemic Cover Crop Program is modeled on state-based programs in Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana and Wisconsin.
11. NRDC, Opportunities to Reduce Food Waste in the 2023 Farm Bill, April 26, 2022, https://www.nrdc.org/experts/yvette-cabrera/opportunities-reduce-food-w….
12. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) 2019 Solid Waste Policy Report accessed via https://www.leg.mn.gov/docs/2020/mandated/200036.pdf.
13. Environmental Protection Agency, Recycling Economic Information (REI) Report, 2020, https://www.epa.gov/smm/recycling-economic-information-rei-report#findi…
14. HR 4443, COMPOST Act, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/4443
15. HR 4444, Zero Food Waste Act, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/4444