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Photo: Scott Streble

Blog | October 3, 2023

The People’s Hearing at Farm Aid 2023

by Hannah Tremblay

Farm Aid may be best known for its music, but advocating for family farmers is an equally important part of this annual event. In the spirit of Farm Aid’s grassroots advocacy origins, a group of more than three-hundred policymakers, advocates, organizers, and farmers gathered near Noblesville, IN, the day before the concert to call for a better Farm Bill.

The format for this “People’s Hearing,” drew from the tradition of civil rights movements that use the organizing principle of “Nothing About Us, Without Us, is For Us!” The idea for the hearing came about after a series of listening sessions where Farm Aid heard from grassroots organizers fighting against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – or industrial factory farms – in their communities.

Despite months of organizing and advocating in D.C. and asking legislators for a food system that prioritizes people and communities over corporate interests, Farm Aid and its organizing partners have received no indication that Congress has heard their calls for a better Farm Bill. The need to make their voices heard brought these groups from all over the country to speak at the People’s Hearing.

Speakers for the Hearing, which included farmers, advocates, authors, and organizers, spoke on the themes of confronting corporate power, climate and environmental justice, and racial justice in the Farm Bill. The Hearing was moderated by Sherri Dugger of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.

Dugger opened the Hearing:

“With the corporate-controlled industrial agriculture system comes injustice…Today’s consolidated food and agriculture system drives independent family farmers off the land… It harms every aspect of life…No Farm Bill in recent history has adequately addressed the far-reaching changes needed to reform our food and farm system. The time for a change in farm policy direction is now; without it, we stand on the precipice of a worsening climate crisis, the deepening of racial disparities, and the perpetuation of a system that serves corporations, instead of communities and the commons we all share – our soil, our water and our air.”

Tim Gibbons, of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, spoke on the topic of confronting corporate power. Regarding the corporate control of America’s agriculture system, Gibbons said, “[Factory farm corporations’] takeover of our farm and food system did not come out of inevitability; it’s not because this is the way it should be. And it did not come out of efficiency, but instead it came from calculated policy decisions on the state, federal, and international level, heavily and unfairly influenced by corporate and special interests.” He called for a Farm Bill that establishes competitive markets, fair prices to farmers, and fair wages to workers.

Shannon Anderson, of Earth Charter Indiana, cited the “long shadow” that the Farm Bill casts on local food and energy policies and described why it is critical that the Farm Bill serve the “many, and the most, not just the few.” She noted that climate funding and resources often wind up in the hands of a few large operators, and that the ratio of white to Black farmers in Indiana is 700:1. Shannon called for expanding conservation programs in the Farm Bill, not curbing them, and increasing the funding and accessibility of these programs for minority farmers.

Justin Solet, a commercial fisherman and member of North American Marine Alliance, called attention to several marker bills that are crucial for supporting Black farmers and addressing the climate crisis, including the Farmland for Farmers Act, the Agriculture Resilience Act, and the Justice for Black Farmers Act. He connected industrial agriculture’s reliance on petrochemicals to the pollution he sees in his community: “Louisiana has become a sacrifice zone… [but] we are all connected to our mother, the Mississippi River.”

Ten other witnesses provided testimony on issues ranging from the inequity prevalent under current agricultural policy, to the need for a Farm Bill that supports regenerative, local food systems and farmer-led climate solutions, to the critical importance of preventing development of agricultural land.

A “jury,” consisting of Sarah Vogel, longtime farmer activist and lawyer, Dr. Ronald Rainey, Professor of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness at the University of Arkansas, and Sophia Murphy, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, listened to the testimony and presented a discussion on the themes and takeaways they observed.

Sarah Vogel, a lawyer and longtime advocate for family farmers reflected:

“[Today’s testimony] reminded me of the 1980s… Many of the same issues were happening. It seemed as though all grassroots advocacy was not having an impact…. but they did have an impact, you do have an impact … It does matter when you confront politicians and write letters, it leads to results.”

Dr. Rainey concurred with many of the witnesses’ testimonies, “The balance of power in our Farm Bill is out of sync … The Farm Bill touches every person and every household, but the people who aren’t thought about become invisible, whether it’s our marginalized farmers or our rural communities.”

Sophia Murphy said, “The Farm Bill is shooting agriculture in the foot… Climate change isn’t waiting for bipartisan consensus… Around the world, a lot of people are watching this Farm Bill.”

Witnesses’ testimonies, as well as the distillation of their work by the jury, was presented and delivered to Gloria Montaño Greene, Deputy Undersecretary of Farm Production and Conservation Division at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as several other USDA staff who were present. Audience members were able to submit written comments that were also included in the physical testimony delivered to the Deputy Undersecretary.

Deputy Undersecretary Montaño Greene responded to the day’s testimony. She argued that the implementation of the Farm Bill is often more important than the bill itself and that the Biden administration has charged the USDA to keep farmers farming, “build the middle,” and focus on small and mid-sized operations, as well as urban and beginning farmers. Montaño Greene assured the audience that under USDA Secretary Tom Vilsak, the agency has made a concerted effort to address equity in USDA programs and reach farmers who it has not reached historically.

Montaño Greene proudly called attention to the fact that since the Biden administration took over in January 2021, the Farm Service Agency (the USDA agency that implements agricultural policy and administers credit and loan programs) has not foreclosed or liquidated any farm loans and has practiced intervention as much as legally possible in guaranteed loans.

She concluded, “We have so much more to do. We ask that you have patience with us and give us grace. We have to move at the speed of trust, but some of that trust is also how you help us change the system.”

The People’s Hearing concluded with a powerful closing statement from Dr. Rania Masri, of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, who said:

“We need a Farm bill that stops mega-mergers. Decades of lax antitrust enforcement have created a food system defined by consolidation.” She went on to declare, “[Agribusiness and Congress] can’t pretend that there is no alternative to the status quo – we have spoken about it today.”

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