For decades, the guiding principle of agricultural policy in the United States has been "Go big or go home." We need new leadership for a diverse, sustainable agriculture in the United States. I want to provide that leadership in Congress, based on the principle that farming can and should function as part of a community.
THE CORPORATE TAKEOVER OF AMERICAN FARMING
Family farms have been under attack by corporations and their political allies since 1950. Over 3.5 million families have lost their farms since that time, while the average acreage of a farm in the US increased by over 200 percent. The rapid growth of corporate power in the US during the 1980s played out on America’s farms, where the rate of consolidation coincided with an incredibly difficult decade for family farms. The 1990s showed some promise, with organic and specialty farming providing entry points for smaller farms, but by the 2010s, the number of farmers has once again decreased while farm acreage monopolized by big agriculture business continues to rise. In Michigan alone, sixty-seven thousand families have lost their farms since 1960 while the average farm acreage has increased by almost 150 percent.
Those farmers who have weathered the onslaught of big agriculture have faced severe economic challenges. In 2017, on-farm income continued a long downward trend, with the average farm producing over $1,000 of negative income. That decline is a primary reason that net farm income has dropped by fifty percent since 2013. Agriculture has always been financially risky, but it is unacceptable that off-farm income is the only thing keeping farmers alive.
Farming has always been difficult but in recent decades, it has become increasingly strenuous, causing serious mental stresses for American farmers. The potential for financial losses, social isolation, barriers to mental health services (often completely unavailable in rural areas), and the availability of lethal means has created a suicide crisis on our farms. The most recent research from the Centers for Disease Control reveal that the suicide rate of people working in agriculture is the highest for any occupation in the United States- more than 5 times the national average and more than twice that of veterans. Even those numbers are almost certainly in error on the low side because many farm suicides look like and are categorized as farm accidents.
Farm communities have attempted to address some of these problems but need our help. Sowing the Seeds of Hope, a Wisconsin-based organization formed in 1999, is a perfect example of what we can do. The group formed to help underinsured farmers gain access to behavioral health services and were the basis for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, a program included- but not funded- in the 2008 US Farm Bill because Congress could not find the $18 million needed to support a program that would have created regional and national helplines and provide counseling services for farmers. Before Sowing Seeds of Hope was forced to close its doors due to a lack of funding in 2014, the organization had trained over 10,000 rural behavioral health professionals and provided subsidized behavioral health services to over 100,000 farm families.
Though Congress was unable to fund the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, agriculture does not lack for federal support. The United States subsidizes agriculture to the tune of about $20 billion per year but unfortunately, this money is not helping where it is most desperately needed. Between 1995 and 2016, the wealthiest 10% of farmers received 77% of all subsidies and the top 1% received 26% of all subsidies, equaling $1.7 million per recipient. While hundreds of thousands of America’s farming families lost their lives and their livelihoods, corporations have swept in and taken control of our agricultural and food system. This is unacceptable.
The progressive movement in the United States started on the farms of the Midwest and now is our opportunity to regain leadership of the movement and create an agricultural and food policy that promotes economic and social justice, respects local communities, and protects the water, air, and soil that we all depend upon.
THE PATH TO A 21ST CENTURY AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD SYSTEM
FARMERS BILL OF RIGHTS
I am a proud signatory to the Farmers Bill of Rights and while in Congress, I will work with Family Farm Action, the National Farmers Union, and other progressive agricultural groups to make the Farmers Bill of Rights a reality.
BREAK UP CORPORATE MONOPOLIES
Our food system as it is serves primarily to increase corporate profits. It should instead provide healthy food for all Americans. The first step to getting there is to break up monopolies of agricultural inputs, food processors, and food distributors. One step in this direction is to end bankruptcy forum shopping. The Bankruptcy Venue Reform Act introduced by Senators Cornyn (R-TX) and Warren (D-MA) would eliminate a loophole allowing out-of-state corporations conducting the majority of their business with agricultural providers in states like Iowa and Michigan to file bankruptcy under exceptionally corporate-friendly policies that leave suppliers unable to recoup losses.
SUPPORT RURAL INFRASTRUCTURE AND OPPORTUNITY
I will support the creation of a Rural Infrastructure Agency that will oversee the installation of affordable, high-speed wireless internet to all rural residences, will ensure that all rural communities have access to high-quality schools and health facilities, and provide financial and technical support to maintain transportation infrastructure.
TRAIN THE NEXT GENERATION
Apprenticeships and training in agriculture, like the other skilled trades, should be given as much weight and priority in our educational system as a four-year degree. Just as I will work to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, I will work to establish and fully subsidize training programs for young farmers and agricultural workers. One of the best ways to make this happen will be to save the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and make farmers eligible to receive this benefit. That program provides student-loan forgiveness for graduates who work in nonprofit or governmental institutions and make their payments for ten years. Though that program has been attacked by the current administration it must be protected and expanded. We need to reduce the required payments to five years and increase the number of people who will benefit. Farmers are producing crops for their communities and the nation and are performing a public service. They deserve access to the same education incentives as other public service professions.
ADDRESS IMMIGRATION AND LABOR
The H2A visa program brings over 400,000 essential agricultural workers. I will defend DACA, the H2A visa, and a comprehensive immigration policy with a real path to citizenship. We need to make it easier for people to immigrate to the United States and join the workforce.
MAKE CREDIT AVAILABLE
We must provide necessary federal financial and legislative support to create a state-owned bank in each state based on the model of the Bank of North Dakota. Each of these banks would be required to support the agriculture, infrastructure, small business, and education needs of the citizens of its state and would return all profits to the state.
Federal funding for agricultural research and extension should be protected and increased. Unbiased science should guide our decisions from the land all the way to the dinner table. Agricultural research must advance a sustainable food system that puts the health of the people and land first, not a corporate business model that prioritizes profits. The USDA currently provides about $1.5 billion per year in funding for research that is largely devoted to chemical-intensive, industrial-scale agriculture. I will push for all agricultural research to be directed to supporting diversified and sustainable farming methods.
PROTECT NATIONAL SECURITY AND FOOD POLICY
We need to place a cap on the amount of foreign ownership in our agricultural businesses. We cannot cede control of our national food system to multinational corporations or foreign actors that lack loyalties to the United States and have the ability to evade federal and state authority.
SUPPORT CONSERVATION EFFORTS FOR SOIL AND WATER
Successful federal government programs to help farmers build soil, protect water resources, and preserve wildlife and pollinator habitat are already in place, and my goal will be to strengthen these programs and reduce the amount of bureaucratic red tape hindering access to them. Public lands used for agricultural purposes must be protected and managed in ways that do not diminish the fertility of the soil, the cleanliness of the water, or the sustainability of the ecosystem and biological diversity. The Public Rangelands and Improvement Act of 1978, is one piece of legislation that has the potential to help meet these needs and it must be observed.
Farms depend on safe and reliable water sources. If we are to support family farms we must protect agricultural water rights from infringement by energy, bottling, or any industrial-scale uses. I will work to protect the quality of water by sponsoring legislation to create a federal database of water quality problems and voluntary program of subsidized water testing for all well-water in the nation. To ensure the safety of our water I will defend adherence to the Safe Drinking Water Act and ensure the integrity of the Environmental Protection Agency by protecting its budget and its independence from the industries it monitors.
PROTECT LOCAL MARKETS
We must continue to support the local, independent businesses serving the processing and transportation needs of small farmers. To do this, we have to prevent multinational corporations from monopolizing services that are crucial for small farmers to prosper and to feed their communities.
ENFORCE TRANSPARENT LABELING
All agricultural and food products must have transparent labeling that clearly identifies the country of origin, genetically-engineered content, and all ingredients. I will work to overturn and replace, or dramatically expand, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. That bill was created to deprive states of the authority to create meaningful labeling laws, most specifically in relation to genetically engineered foods and ingredients. In Congress, I will work with states pursuing effective labeling laws and push for an effective federal version.