Ask Farm Aid | November 7, 2008

What does the change in administration mean for family farmers?

November 2008

Dear Hilde,

Now that the election is over, there’s a lot of talk about transition. What does the change in administration mean for family farmers and how can Farm Aid supporters be a part of what’s going on?


Katy Horner
Pittsburgh, PA

Hi Katy,

Transition is certainly the talk around town these days, and for good reason. President-elect Obama has wasted little time in assembling a team to help our federal government maneuver through one of the most difficult times in US history. “Deliberate haste,” I believe, were the words used by Obama’s team to characterize his transition plan. Two wars, an economic crisis, burgeoning health epidemics amidst a broken health care system, fueling energy concerns and climate change to boot – he’s certainly got some work cut out for him. Not since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Great Depression has an incoming president (nor our country) faced such monumental challenges.

Most of the talk about transition is in reference to new hires in the executive Cabinet. The most obvious position on the minds of food and farm folks in recent weeks has been the Secretary of Agriculture. Many names have been speculated in the media with varying appeal; most consistently: Tom Buis, Tom Vilsack, Collin Peterson, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Tom Daschle, Charles Stenholm, and Kathleen Sebelius. Despite any well-intended plotting and last minute petitions to add our favorite picks (we’ve even seen Willie Nelson’s name floated on a list!), the reality is that those vying for these positions have been at it for months, even years. A couple of weeks of waiting and offering opinions as best we can, and we should have our Secretary of Ag.

Perhaps where our ideas might have the most influence is when it comes to the many lower-level positions (Under Secretaries and Deputies) still up for grabs. These appointments will shape the immediate and future direction of family farmers in America through their interpretation and implementation of food and farm related laws passed in Congress. And unlike the Secretary of Ag position, many of these jobs are still actively seeking prospects, making it all the more critical for us to suggest and encourage candidates with a genuine record of expertise and a strong commitment to family farmers.

Less up in the air, but equally important, is the transition coming to Capitol Hill. Policy advocates at the DC-based Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (one of Farm Aid’s funded groups) pulled together a quick sketch of the effect of the elections on incumbent seats in Agriculture and Agriculture Appropriation Committees in both the Senate and House. Since these committees oversee all legislation involving farms, rural development, disaster relief, agricultural research, technical assistance, food safety, conservation programs, food stamps, school nutrition, and more, they are an important bunch to keep tabs on. (And, more importantly, to write to! Check out SAC’s post to see which of your state delegates serve on these committees).

Change is certainly in the air, but what does it all mean for family farmers?

As we talked about last month, farm policy didn’t get much airtime leading up to the elections. Considering our nation’s economic condition and the wintry feel in the air, I’m guessing it won’t be taking front-and-center anytime soon either. Yet, there remain many reasons why family farmers and farm advocates need to pay close attention to these changing days:

  1. To begin, a Farm Bill was recently passed and many of the “wins” for family farmers, sustainable agriculture, and community-based food systems have yet to be realized. We need to act to protect these wins and ensure that the best interests of family farmers are upheld as Farm Bill legislation is funded and translated into action.
  2. Secondly, the big topics that are getting airtime – economy, health care, climate change, and energy security – are more or less agricultural issues, albeit in disguise. Not only do family farmers face these issues (sometimes more than their share), they offer many innovative solutions to address them, by building prosperity, health and wealth in this country from the ground up. (But don’t just take my word for it: check out food advocate and NYT journalist Michael Pollan’s recent letter to the “Farmer in Chief” for a compelling case on why ag reform may be the answer to many of our current crises).
  3. Third, now is a great opportunity to encourage broader representation for family farm issues on the Hill and at the USDA. We’ve just elected the first African American President – a historic and proud moment for our country. Why stop there? Historically, African Americans have been disenfranchised and discriminated against in the USDA; let’s use this opportunity of change to get more African American voices to the table! More farm worker voices! More immigrant farmer voices! More beginning farmer voices! More urban ag voices! And the voices of all of us who eat too! Corporate interests have a powerful lobby in DC, which is all the more reason to shout out the many diverse voices of family farmers across America, loud and clear, and to demand equal representation.
  4. And finally, we need to hold our newly elected officials accountable for commitments made during their campaigns. President-elect Obama, for one, had quite a number of family farm-friendly positions outlined in his rural document, including an organic-cost share program, beginning farmer assistance, strengthening anti-trust enforcement, and cracking down on factory farm pollution. In 2005, during his guest appearance at Farm Aid’s 20th anniversary concert in Tinley Park, Illinois, Obama exclaimed to the crowd: “We celebrate the family farm not only because it gives us the food we eat, but it also maintains a way of life. And it teaches us the values of decency and hard work and looking after one another… and we will not take them for granted and we will make sure they get the advocacy and support they need day in and day out.” Awesome! Now, let’s make sure to remind the new administration of their words and promises.

So, all said, how can Farm Aid supporters be a part of what’s going on?

Well, for a start, we can agree to agree! Friends of Farm Aid come from all political leanings, and we are proud of the diverse viewpoints and perspectives that make up our base. Regardless of whom you voted for in the elections, I know we can all agree on the importance of keeping family farmers on the land and thriving. As an organization with that ideal as our very mission, we can’t help but hope that the incoming administration will ignite our economy by supporting family farm-friendly policies that bring good food to the table for more and more Americans. And we’re willing to offer whatever expertise, resources and guidance the new administration needs to get the job done.

As citizens you have many options.

First, you can write your representatives in both the House and Senate. Let them know the importance of a strong agricultural foundation in this country, of food security and sustainability, and urge them to vote for policies that protect the family farmer as the cornerstone of this country.

While you’re at it, encourage your delegates in Congress to push for family-farm-friendly appointments at the USDA. While House and Senate reps aren’t the ones ultimately making these appointments, they certainly have some sway.

Endorse the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture – a statement designed to unite people across geographic, social, and economic lines in the pursuit of healthy food and agriculture; and the intent to call on policymakers to support comprehensive change and craft policies that will lead to a healthy and sustainable food system.

And finally, write to President-elect Obama yourself. Don’t be shy – Willie Nelson has a great example to share! And the Obama transition team set up a site specifically for this purpose:

While transition is certainly the talk of the nation, remember it’s up to all of us as citizens to be part of the conversation and the solution!

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