The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has devastated economies all over the world.
In the US, the federal government has responded with stimulus packages meant to bolster the economy by keeping businesses both big and small afloat through this challenging time. But one group has been largely left out of this assistance: smaller-scale farmers.
The aid that has been provided to farmers – principally the $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) – “compensates large-scale and commodity farmers for lost crops, but doesn’t address local and regional markets drying up for small farmers,” according to The Washington Post.
The National Young Farmers Coalition has said that the benefits to farmers in the CFAP leave many, particularly those who sell into local or regional markets as well as farmers of color, in the lurch.
It’s no surprise then that the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition estimates that local and regional food markets lost as much as $688.7 million in sales between March and May alone due to the pandemic.
“Without immediate mitigation, we may lose many small, socially disadvantaged, and beginning farms and the important markets they serve,” the industry group writes.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Small farms are the lifeblood of many communities. They provide nutritious food in places that may not always have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Many create jobs, at least seasonally. And many more are also at the forefront of the movement for better, more-sustainable ways to grow our food.
These farmers should not be left out of economic recovery efforts aimed at stabilizing our food supply chains – they should be at the center of it. As we seek to respond and recover from one the largest economic downturns in history, it’s imperative that we see climate action and economic recovery as one and the same, and they can come together harmoniously to aid struggling small farms.
Our Chance to Farm Better
The agriculture sector is one of the biggest emitters of CO2, the greenhouse gas (GHG) most responsible for the changes we are seeing in our climate today. Together with forestry and other land use, agriculture is responsible for just under 25 percent of all human-created GHG emissions.
While some large-scale food producers are pushing their growers toward climate-smart agricultural practices, by and large, they have been slow to adopt more-sustainable practices in favor of a one-size-fits-all approach that maximizes yields in the short term while depleting the soil and contributing to the climate crisis in the long run.
But at the same time, there has been a recent explosion in the number of small farms run by young people across America.
The Washington Post reports, “The US Agriculture Department’s most recent five-year census, released last year, found a surge in the number of farms under nine acres, which increased by about 22 percent from 2012 to 2017, as well as farmers and ranchers below the age of 35, whose numbers increased roughly 11 percent to about 285,000.”
These are the very same farms suffering without assistance during the ongoing pandemic. What if we gave them the support they deserve – and what if a condition of it was the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices that limit farm emissions? (Something, again, you’re already far more likely to find on these small farms than the sprawling ones many associate with our food systems.)
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
In short, regenerative agriculture is a system of farming practices that places a heavy premium on soil health with attention also paid to water management, fertilizer use, and more. It is a method of farming that “improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them,” according to the Rodale Institute.
Key techniques include crop rotation and an embrace of plant diversity; planting cover crops, like clover, buckwheat, or hairy vetch, to protect soil when the field is not in production; reducing or eliminating tillage, which can dramatically erode soil and release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; and being cautious about chemical fertilizers or other biological activities that can damage long-term soil health.
These climate-smart principles and practices seek to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm.
Prioritizing Climate Action in Any Stimulus
We need a just recovery that puts people before powerful corporations. A recovery that confronts both COVID-19 today and the climate crisis ahead, rebuilding America with clean energy and climate-smart agriculture, creating millions of jobs along the way. A recovery that ensures all Americans have a voice and a vote.
“Rather than concentrating aid to corporate agribusiness, Congress should ensure that the majority of aid be directed toward small and mid-scale farmers and ranchers and local and regional food businesses that enable healthy food to get to people who need it most,” Food Tank wrote of the first coronavirus stimulus package back in April.
But the sentiment remains as true now as it does then – and with Congress debating future stimulus packages, it deserves to be repeated.
Any future stimulus should prioritize groups feeling the impacts of the economic downturn the worst: small and/or new farm operations, socially disadvantaged farmers, and farmers of color, as well as those who have, as described above, lost local and regional markets due to the pandemic.
It should go a step further too, offering grant and loan programs, financial incentives, and technical assistance to expand sustainable agriculture operations across the country.
But don’t take it from us. Take it from the 50 major organizations that signed onto an open letter to Congress urging those very actions.
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