Local Food & Sustainable Farming on the Congressional Record!

On Wednesday, August 30, Illinoisans had a very unique opportunity to speak on the congressional record to the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture at a farm bill listening session in Decatur. The current farm bill expires in September 2018, and people are already mobilizing all around the country to weigh in on what the next farm bill should look like. Farm bills are massive pieces of legislation, covering most aspects of our food and farming system, and they are typically rewritten every five years.

Just a few of the farmers and food system advocates we brought to the House Ag Listening Session on August 30th

When Illinois Stewardship Alliance learned that this listening session would take place at the Decatur Farm Progress Show, we invited our network to join us in speaking up for local food and sustainable agriculture. We shared talking points and led a preparatory session in the morning before the event began. All together, about 25 people we invited attended the listening session, 19 filled out cards to have a chance to speak, and 10 were able to testify on the record!! At least a dozen additional groups we share some interests with, such as food banks, animal rights groups, and wildlife protection groups also spoke. We were pleased that conservation was mentioned by a large number of people from all kinds of interest groups as well. We estimated at least 200 people in the audience, which means we represented roughly 10% of the crowd and nearly 20% of 50-some who spoke!

There is still an opportunity to submit written comments and we urge you to do so. One easy way to speak up to Congress is to sign our farm bill letter here. Statements will be due by the end of the week.

This was the fifth listening session to take place around the country, and we only know of a few more that are planned. While it was disappointing that not all of our people had the chance to speak, the fact that 10 of us did was really exciting. We had no idea ahead of time whether they would call any of our names, but it was very important to turn up. We very much appreciate all those who took the time to do so.

If our network had not been at this listening session, the phrases “local food” and “farmers markets” would not have been mentioned. “Organic” would have come up once, but only as a suggestion to take money away from organic programs in order to fund hoof and mouth disease preparedness. Because we were there, one of our speakers was able to rebut that statement. Yoram Shanan proprietor of Sandbox Organics Farm in Grayslake and co-founder of a National Young Farmers Coalition chapter in northern Illinois, took a moment to counter that organic needs more funding, not less, before turning to his prepared statement.

John Williams, beginning farmer at PrairiErth Farm, testifies in support of programs that aid beginning farmers

Our Policy Associate, Rebecca Osland, spoke about including support for local food infrastructure in the farm bill and mentioned local food economies in each of the three Illinois Committee members’ regions. Congressman Mike Bost had mentioned in his introduction earlier that morning that Southern Illinois has the most diversified agriculture in the state. Rebecca took that cue to echo him in her statement and point out how effective local food development has been as a replacement economy for lost coal jobs in parts of Appalachia, and mentioned farmers markets to the representatives of the other two regions.

With Illinois State Rep. Sue Scherer present in the audience to testify about the shortage of agriculture educators in this state, Rebecca also thanked the Illinois legislature for passing resolutions this spring urging Congress to support local food in the farm bill. Sarah Simeziane, Farmers Market Manager at The Land Connection, took the farmers market discussion deeper by sharing her experience with programs, like the Farmers Market Promotion Program, that help markets serve lower-income populations. Dr. David Kopsell from Illinois State University, who had spoken earlier, set the stage well by discussing the economic return on investment into specialty crop research.

Both Yoram Shanan, mentioned above, and John Williams, who works at PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, spoke about their experiences as beginning farmers, the training programs that help them succeed, and the additional concerns that need to be addressed to make farming an affordable and sustainable career choice. Later, Mallory Krieger, Farmer Training Program Manager at The Land Connection, expounded on the specific programs that give organizations like The Land Connection the resources they need to train farmers like Yoram and John.

Conservation and regenerative agriculture were well-covered by Dick Lyons, Director of the Illinois Association of Drainage Districts, Steve Stierwalt, President of the Association of Illinois Soil & Water Conservation Districts, Carol Hays, Executive Director of Prairie Rivers Network, and Mike Baise, Senior Midwest Policy Advisor for American Farmland Trust. All of whom contributed different perspectives and interests with respect to sustainable or regenerative agriculture, continuous living cover, including perennials and cover crops, the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, and soil and water health.

Sarah Simeziane, Market Manager at The Land Connection Champaign Farmers Market talks about how the Farmers Market Promotion Program Grant has directly impacted her community.

While conservation and crop insurance were the most frequently discussed topics, none of our people who signed up to discuss crop insurance were called. This was one area where there was a real imbalance in the perspective communicated. Over and over, we heard “leave crop insurance alone.” We hoped to communicate that public expenditures to subsidize the cost of insurance premiums should also have some correlation to conservation on the subsidized acres, that the current crop insurance model contributes to farm consolidation, and that diversified farms should be rewarded for minimizing their own risk by paying lower premiums. All of these messages will have to be communicated through written testimony instead.

Overall, we were glad that we had a notable presence and were able to share a different perspective. We could not have done this without our members and partners, and very much thank everyone who could participate. There will be a lot more work to do to make sure the issues we care about are included in the 2018 farm bill, and we will keep sharing ways that you can help. Illinois Stewardship Alliance is an active member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which is on the ground in Washington, D.C. and working to include at least five marker bills that cover local food and sustainable farming in the farm bill. We need to provide the grassroots power to complement the work they are doing by speaking up to our three agriculture committee members of Congress and all the other representatives and senators from Illinois.

Congress members who attended the listening session included Committee Chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX-11), Ranking-Member Collin Peterson (D-MN-07), Vice Chairman Glenn Thomson (R-PA-05), and four Illinois members of Congress, Darin LaHood (R-IL-18), who is not on the Committee, and all three Illinois Committee members Rodney Davis (R-IL-13), Mike Bost (R-IL-12), and Cheri Bustos (D-IL-17). It is very powerful that Illinois has three members on this Committee and means that our state has a significant say in what the farm bill will look like.

Again, please sign our farm bill letter before the end of the week (by Sept. 8) here.

Watch the full session here. You can jump to the specific times listed below to watch individual testimony.

Our people who testified:
Dick Lyons: 1:04
Dr. David Kopsell: 1:35
Yoram Shanan: 1:44
Rebecca Osland: 1:50
John Williams: 1:56
Steve Stierwalt: 2:01
Carol Clapp Hays: 2:09
Michael Baise: 2:21
Sarah Simeziane: 2:41
Mallory Krieger: Her fantastic testimony came after the recording stopped.