Recent conference for farmers has messages for all

It’s not your father’s farming anymore.

With its fruits and vegetables, field crops and livestock, sure Michigan remains a national leader in crop diversity.

But the families that grow and market the food are becoming just as diverse, a trend celebrated recently at the 16th Annual Michigan Family Farms Conference at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

The conference, titled Tools for Agricultural Success- What’s in Your Shed? offered beginning, small-scale, and culturally diverse farmers a chance to network, learn, and build sustainable family farms by participating in hands-on activities.

Seven tracks of breakout sessions, plus a youth track, were designed to engage the whole family. 

One hot topic: Ins and outs of the 2018 Farm Bill, signed into law in December 2018.

In that session, Positive Policy Change in a Fractured Political Landscape, presenter Wes King of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explained how many of the new Farm Bill’s changes benefit Michigan farmers. King says other changes, however, may represent a step back for farmers and consumers.

The Farm Bill is a packet of legislation specifically focusing on the food and farm industry. Since the early 1930s, a new farm bill has been signed into law about every five years.

2018 Farm Bill

King says his session was designed to be an overview of the latest bill, a  “Farm Bill 101,” with an emphasis on local food and new farmers, but also touched on conservation and organic growing. The session included a discussion of the next steps of implementation and how folks can get involved in programs.
King, a senior policy specialist with the Washington, D.C.- based coalition, says it’s tough to “follow all the zigs and zags” in the recent legislation and to untangle what each piece means for the future of sustainable agriculture and family farmers.

Generally, though, the new Farm Bill makes long-overdue investments in the future of American agriculture, he says.
First, legislation is aimed at connecting beginning and socially-disadvantaged producers with the tools and resources they need to start and sustain farm businesses.

Another important component — the 2018 Farm Bill provides permanent, mandatory funding for local and regional food production, and organic research.

Permanent funding means farmers and community-based organizations that depend on these programs will no longer have to worry about the fate of those resources each farm bill cycle, King says.

Permanent baseline funding has long been sought by the National Coalition for Sustainable Farming so that legislative delays don’t result in funding or support gaps for family farmers and farm organizations.

Other improvements in the latest Farm Bill address conservation, cover cropping, resource-conserving crop rotation, and advanced grazing systems.

It’s not all good news 

King says the bill fails to address some of the most significant challenges facing American agriculture and rural communities – food and farm business consolidation, dwindling rural populations and resources, and climate change.

And In some cases, he says, the bill takes a backward step by failing to restore funding cuts to conservation programs and by failing to close widening loopholes in commodity subsidy and crop insurance programs.

In fact, instead of reform in those areas the final 2018 Farm Bill actually expands existing loopholes – the result of which will most likely be million-dollar-per-year subsidies for the wealthiest mega-farms, King says.

For the things the bill does right King credited U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, with the hard-won improvements in the 2018 Farm Bill.

“She was a lead for making those things happen,” King says. “We have strong admiration for everything she did to champion sustainable agriculture.”
Read more about the 2018 Farm Bill here.

Other sessions

Another standing-room-only session dealt with the topic of racial equity in food systems.

Professional coach J.R. Reynolds of Good Food in Battle Creek says Black farmers, as well as all farmers of color, particularly women, tribal, and Latino ranchers, suffered from a long history of discrimination from USDA institutional practices and credit programs. 

“These programs gave decision-making power to county-controlled bodies often composed of all White landowners who intentionally discriminated against Black farmers, particularly in the South,” Reynolds says. “As a result, Black families were either denied loans, given loans with very high-interest rates or misled by false information about the application process.”

Reynolds says communities of color often have the least access to healthy, affordable food. They tend to be situated near the most under-resourced and lowest-performing schools, near environmental hazards, furthest from jobs, and have the least transportation options.

“And while communities of color suffer the most from the way these institutions are arranged, it is important to understand that structural racial inequity harms everyone — by shrinking the tax base, under-funding public services, creating social tension, and limiting economic growth,” Reynolds says.

Land policies and institutional discrimination have led to historically high rates of land loss for farmers, particularly Blacks and Native Americans, and people living in rural areas; Farm Bill policies favor the production and distribution of unhealthy foods over healthy foods; Social Security and wage policies have set back advancement for laborers across the food chain, especially women, immigrants and people of color.

Also in that session, Rich Pirog, Director of Michigan State University’s center for regional food systems, presented an analysis of the importance of metrics and data as it relates to how inequities in the food system affect a myriad of things—from the harming Michigan’s  economy to threatening to our food system and resulting in poorer quality of life among individuals. 

Ruben Martinez, Director of the Julian Santora Research Institute, shared examples of how workers who milk cows on farms are subjected to race-based inequities.
Reynolds shared how institutional and systemic racism in the food system, versus individual racism, are inherited conditions, perpetuated by policies, procedures, regulations, and actions.

Participants were invited to find ways to gain a deeper appreciation of cultures different from their own; to recognize how conscious and unconscious bias affects policies and decisions; and to leverage the information found in academic papers to bolster grant applications for equity-rooted projects and to influence food policy decisions.

The session closed with a question-and-answer session.
The conference keynote speaker this year was Urban farmer Melvin Parson, founder of We the People Growers Association in Ypsilanti. His address, titled Changing the Soil, told the story of how the gift of a small plot of land and supportive friends turned into an organic agribusiness supplying 15 Southeast Michigan restaurants. 

An extended session titled Menus that Matter – How Chefs Can Be Farmers’ Best Friends, included a tour of the KVCC Food Innovation Center, which features a farm, food hub, and education center and the Culinary and Allied Health facility. 

The annual Michigan Family Farms Conference was held at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Texas Township Campus in Kalamazoo.
The conference featured 21 breakout sessions plus a youth track to engage the whole family on topics that included food safety, marketing, soil health, seed saving, and selling to wholesale markets.

Conference sponsors and planning partners include Michigan Food & Farming Systems, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Program, USDA NRCS, USDA FSA, MSU Extension, MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, FoodCorps, Detroit Public Schools, Michigan Public Health Institute, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, Michigan Good Food Fund, Taste the Local Difference, National Immigrant Farmer Initiative, Michigan Farmers Market Association, and Greenstone Farm Credit Services.
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Read more articles by Rosemary Parker.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.