By: Karen Karp
Farmers are hungry for politicians who truly understand their needs and concerns and can offer a meaningful pathway to address them. Farming touches every aspect of human life, from climate change to the dinner table, and agriculture should be central to any new administration’s agenda.
This election season, both presidential candidates are working hard to secure the important rural vote. I’ve been watching the town halls and observed so many lost opportunities to connect to rural voters not just on the topics they care about, but in the context and language they relate to.
Last month, after watching a disappointing town hall exchange between a commodity farmer and the candidate I am supporting, I felt compelled to help. I leveraged my networks to reach the campaign’s agriculture advisors. I received a positive response and a request to help frame the issues and develop some talking points for the campaign
Karen Karp & Partners has worked across the agricultural spectrum—geographically, politically, economically—and over the years, we have learned a few things about how to reach and have meaningful conversations with members of these vital communities who are often misunderstood, taken for granted—or occasionally ignored.
Below are the seven topics and a few talking points on each which we offered up to the campaign. It was a good exercise to also think about how we want to focus our work in these critical years where so much is at stake for where, how and for whom we are growing crops, raising animals and producing food.
These are not the most profound words you’ll read from me: they are, in fact, pretty basic. The challenge was to take topics we are so passionate and committed to and frame them for a presidential candidate to say in such a way he conveys his real knowledge with sincerity.
What would you think if your candidate spoke to farmers across rural America with these? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farm viability is often thought of as simply an economic issue, but it’s also about social and cultural dynamics—and national security. Without farmers, we have no food, energy or fiber.
🌽 Farm Viability
Farm viability means food security and economic viability for the entire country. It means family viability and opportunities for the next generation. It’s often too challenging to transition farms from one generation to the next.
Farmers need resources and money to experiment and innovate, including the opportunity to trial new technologies that can help farmers become more efficient and productive. Farming isn’t a typical business. The sector needs an administration that will be sensitive and supportive of farmers and view them as essential to our nation’s culture, economy and security.
🌽 Regulations That Make Sense
Regulation is a tricky topic, particularly in the context of a climate crisis. Still, it’s one an administration must embrace head-on and with an understanding that it’s complex.
Farmers are often left to navigate the ever-changing world of regulations alone, from the new rules themselves to the agencies making and enforcing them. That’s a problem, particularly for smaller, diverse farms that struggle to have the capital to meet the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requirements. More public funding for agricultural stewardship will support whole farm plans, help customize individual farm needs as well as the regions’ needs. This will also help address consumer concerns, particularly about water quality, animal health and crop protectants.
Regulations often change quickly, creating big challenges for farmers to pivot in time. Farmers are doing their jobs and can’t afford to essentially start over each time there is a new regulation. Sometimes there is federal regulation that doesn’t make sense for a particular region or an individual farm. If we want viable farms we have to think about sensible regulation timelines and offer financial support if these require on-farm investments.
The government needs to work with farmers on whole farm plans that are sensible and effective. Farmers should be able to focus on their jobs, not implementing changes that are based on the right ideas but often don’t make sense for an individual farm’s operations or location. Farmers need a government that sees them as partners and that’s willing to listen and learn about the industry first, before regulating.
Export and trade are essential to a diverse and sustainable agricultural economy. But it’s become a politicized issue, and that’s hurting farmers. The Trump administration has created and initiated trade deals more frequently and more harmfully than any president in recent history.
Presidents can negotiate trade deals on behalf of American citizens. This privilege should be executed responsibly and not put farms or the agriculture sector at risk. A good rule for any administration: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. If a trade deal your predecessor implemented is working, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
Agriculture is a constantly evolving sector, creating new and exciting opportunities. But agricultural producers don’t have the time or resources for on-farm innovations. There are many issues at play here.
We need an administration that is excited about the sector — and rightfully so, given the innovation and opportunities. But further innovation needs support to meet and secure new market opportunities. And there need to be consistent markets for farmed products to sell into.
Farmers need more USDA resources committed to long-term market development and innovation to support and secure a future for farmers. In the first two quarters of 2020, more than $7 billion has been invested in farm and food technology. For perspective, $9.7 billion was invested in all of 2019. This sounds great, but the money hasn’t gone to the farmers themselves. An administration must capture this interest among investors and direct more money to activities “on the ground.” The most realistic approach is to develop technology with the knowledge and experience of farmers. Harnessing the renewed interest in farm investments supports what farmers do every day, will benefit farmers and their farms and accelerate exciting agricultural innovation.
🌽 Strengthen Connections Between Farmers and Consumers
American food producers are the backbone of this country. They take risks, roll up their sleeves, get messy and are at the mercy of markets. Advocacy groups headed by non-farmers often misunderstand the sector. They don’t have enough knowledge of the infrastructure and practices needed to be a farmer, and this becomes a particular hot button on environmental issues.
Farmers need empathy from a new administration, advocacy groups and consumers. To do this, a new administration needs to be committed to elevating the conversation around agriculture — even in a polarized society, most of us can agree that it is important to know where our food is coming from and who is producing it and how.
🌽 The Importance of a Viable, Socially integrated Ag System (+ Jobs)
The United States needs farming, and farmers need economical solutions for the 21st century. Over the last 100 years, the nation has focused on producing enough calories to feed a growing population. It’s resulted in big agriculture and an exodus of younger generations from farming.
Consumers, who used to live near their farmers, became disconnected. That’s changed in recent years with the rise of farmers’ markets and CSAs and a desire to know where our food comes from. This is a good thing and a sign we should elevate the conversation. We need to embrace this curiosity and continue building connections to build vibrant agriculture and communities in the future. Agriculture needs to be better integrated into our communities, and this is one strong trend to help create this.
Agriculture also offers enormous job and career opportunities. There are new and growing apprenticeship and university programs training people across the country for careers in the ever-changing field of agriculture. The agriculture workers of tomorrow (and today) need to learn and understand new things, in addition to the old things: There are increased needs for technology, food and agriculture science, seed and animal breeding, farm inputs and animal nutrition, just to name a few.
Finally, the word “culture” is half of the word agriculture. Farming is the backbone of our country’s history, the foundation of our communities (rural and, more recently, even urban and suburban communities), and the first and most lasting expression of America’s culture. With that perspective, we want to celebrate farmers and work more closely to ensure farm viability—it is a top priority.
COVID-19 has exposed dysfunction in our food and agriculture system in every way, from the supply chain to how workers are treated. Now that consumers are aware, we think and hope they won’t take food (and those who produce their food) for granted. The hardships of 2020 can create new opportunities for policy that ensures farmers’ well-being and livelihoods. We also have a chance to invest in value chains that benefit producers, consumers and everyone in between, prepare for the next crisis and grow and produce more food in the U.S. Let’s turn this crisis into an opportunity.