From September 11-13, 300 Farmers Union members from across the country joined together in Washington, DC to advocate for NFU’s farm bill priorities. Since 1909, we have gathered in the Nation’s capital to make our voices heard and lobby for a fairer, more equitable food and agricultural system, and this year was no different.

Throughout the week, members attended hundreds of congressional meetings, met with officials from several key federal agencies, and discussed pressing issues with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, USDA Deputy Secretary Xochitl Torres Small, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan, United States Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai, and senior officials at the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice. Members also had the opportunity to raise the issue of staffing shortages at USDA offices across the country and raised this issue with the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Photo by National Farmers Union.

On the Monday morning, attendees arrived at USDA’s Jefferson Auditorium, where they were welcomed by NFU President Rob Larew and NFU’s government relations staff. The team provided some advocacy tips and tricks, along with a deep dive into the pieces of legislation that our member-led legislative committee identified as priorities.

Along with the history of fly-in and the importance of the conversations that would take place, President Larew also addressed the devastation in Maui and the work that Hawai’i Farmers Union United is doing on the ground, both in connecting residents with food and water, and fundraising for rebuilding efforts.

President Larew welcomed USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who presented on the Biden Administration’s efforts to provide farmers and ranchers with opportunities to enter new markets and diversify income streams. Secretary Vilsack outlined various initiatives USDA has undertaken to grow the farm economy “from the bottom up and middle out,” such as revitalizing local and regional food and energy systems; incentivizing entrepreneurship, innovation, and diversification of operation; and ensuring farmers and ranchers can be part of the solution to climate change.

Photo by National Farmers Union.

Members had the opportunity to direct questions to the Secretary about issues facing their farms and communities. Following the Secretary’s remarks, members heard from senior USDA officials in two panels: The first on the Marketing and Regulatory Programs mission area, and the second on Farm Production and Conservation.

The speakers on these panels included:

  • Jenny Lester Moffitt, Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs.
  • Mike Schmidt, Senior Advisor.
  • Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation.
  • Zach Ducheneaux, Administrator of the Farm Service Agency.
  • Bernie Kluger, Senior Advisor for Management.
  • Terri Meighan, Director of Human Resources for USDA FPAC.

The briefing highlighted the strong relationship between Farmers Union and USDA. NFU is eager to continue this collaboration on behalf of family farmers and ranchers for years to come.

Photo by National Farmers Union.

On Wednesday morning, 75 Farmers Union members were welcomed to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House, for a briefing with senior White House officials. This annual tradition has served as an opportunity for a two-way discussion for members to learn about the Biden-Harris Administration’s priorities and provide perspective on the issues facing family farmers and ranchers across the country.

NFU has been working closely with the White House on several major issues, including the President’s July 2021 Executive Order on competition and the agriculture investments from the Inflation Reduction Act, which have invested more than $300 billion in climate and clean energy initiatives. Roughly $40 billion is devoted to helping farmers, ranchers, and foresters tackle the climate crisis.

Photo by National Farmers Union.

Many Farmers Union state divisions and members have been directly involved in the investments, such as the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), as well as USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities.

This briefing followed NFU President Larew’s participation on a roundtable discussion with senior White House officials on climate-smart agriculture in early September. NFU looks forward to continuing its work with the Biden-Harris Administration to promote voluntary, incentive-based climate policies and provide farmers and ranchers with the tools they need to address the crisis.

Photo by National Farmers Union.

Throughout Fly-In, a key priority of Farmers Union was (and remains) staffing shortages within agencies across USDA, particularly in state and county offices of the Farm Service Agency (FSA).

In 2022, USDA had 5,300 fewer staff than in January 2017. Within FSA, between 2002 and 2018, staffing levels have declined by 33 percent, while the agency now has 2,000 fewer workers than it did in 2006. These staffing shortfalls can cause delays in the effectuation of existing programs and the implementation of new programs, which adversely affects farmers and ranchers who rely on them.

NFU approved a special order of business on the 2023 Farm Bill at our annual convention in March, which included addressing the staffing shortfalls at USDA. In pursuit of this objective, Farmers Union was able to bring members to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which prepares the President’s annual budget proposal to Congress, for a meeting with key officials who manage OMB’s agriculture branch.

USDA and the White House are aware of these staffing issues. Earlier this year, Secretary Vilsack acknowledged structural issues with the USDA’s compensation structure, and that many staff have left for the private sector. The President’s budget request also requested additional dollars to increase staff USDA, including the Farm Service Agency.

NFU Vice President Jeff Kippley led the delegation and presented NFU’s concerns about staffing levels, while expressing a desire for Farmers Union to be a strong partner in addressing this issue. Farmers Union is uniquely positioned to provide on-the-ground, first-hand perspectives and feedback and is eager to work collaboratively to find creative, practical, and workable solutions.

NFU will continue to promote this issue, and as the farm bill reaches expiration and eventual (sooner or later) reauthorization, and work with the White House, USDA, and Congress to address the issue.

Photo by National Farmers Union.

For the “main event” of Fly-In, members voyaged to the Hill for two days of advocacy and lobbying, with various deadlines facing Congress hanging in the balance. A total of 275 meetings – covering more than half the Hill – between Farmers Union and federal officeholders took place, and members were ready to advocate for the 2023 Farm Bill.

During Fly-In, and presently, NFU’s top priority is ensuring passage of a strong farm bill that ensures Fairness for Farmers by addressing the monopoly crisis in agriculture; strengthens the farm safety net; and helps farmers and ranchers tackle climate change.

“We don’t just need a farm bill – we need the right farm bill. We know that when family farmers and ranchers speak out, decision makers listen.” – NFU President Rob Larew

Farmers Union members advocated for establishing a dedicated competition title in the farm bill. Core pieces of legislation within that pursuit include the Meat and Poultry Special Investigator Act, which gives the USDA power to prosecute violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act by meatpackers; the Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act, which seeks to fight consolidation in cattle markets by improving price and slaughter reporting and establishing regional minimums for cash trades; the American Beef Labeling Act to reinstate mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL); and guaranteeing farmers and ranchers have the Right to Repair their own equipment. The Fairness for Small-Scale Farmers and Ranchers Act increases competition throughout the agricultural supply chain, penalizes anticompetitive conduct in livestock and poultry markets, and strengthens the Packers and Stockyards Act (P&S Act).

Photo by National Farmers Union.

Along with efforts to strengthen competition, the farm bill should serve as a safety net for family farm agriculture by strengthening farm programs, addressing the long-standing dairy crisis, bolstering disaster assistance, and expanding risk management tools. Members advocated for authorizing a dual enrollment option for Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC), to remove uncertainty from the annual program sign-up decision and provide higher levels of assistance. Members also lobbied for the Dairy Revitalization Plan, which would establish growth management in the industry and stabilize prices, as well as for authorizing permanent disaster, as producers facing growing risks from extreme and unpredictable weather.

NFU’s climate priorities include strengthening the farm bill’s conservation and energy titles to provide farmers and ranchers with the critical technical and financial assistance to confront the climate crisis. The COVER Act provides farmers who plant cover crops with a premium crop insurance discount to increase cover crop adoption, which would slow soil erosion, promote soil health, improve water availability, suppress weeds, control pests, and increase biodiversity.

Photo by National Farmers Union.

The COWS Act aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air and water quality through a voluntary Alternative Manure Management Program. It provides grants and technical assistance for pasture management and alternative manure treatment and storage. The REAP Modernization Act, updates the Renewable Energy for America Program – REAP – to increase the federal cost-share and increase technical assistance for farmers and ranchers who wish to install renewable energy projects on their lands.

Though Fly-In is officially behind us, our members’ advocacy lefts its footprint on the Hill and across Washington. As the farm bill reaches expiration, and though lawmakers still have some time to work with before extension becomes necessary, the Fall Legislative Fly-In served as its loudest rallying cry.

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