The policy organization AGree is rolling out a series of initiatives this week that the group’s leaders hope will translate into more farmer-driven conservation efforts as well as influence national policy in hot-button areas such as immigration, nutrition and international development.
AGree was started in 2011 by several major foundations to find consensus in agriculture on areas of conflict to help ensure farmers and ranchers can produce enough food in the future.
The group is releasing a series of reports focusing on four major areas of work among the organization’s advisory committee — immigration reform, international agricultural development, food and nutrition and farm conservation efforts.
In the midst of the national policy fight over immigration reform, AGree is rebooting its efforts to emphasize the importance of comprehensive immigration reform to agriculture. Deb Atwood, executive director of AGree, said agricultural labor was one of the first issues raised at the group’s first major roundtable in 2011. A livestock producer at the meeting said the biggest issue facing agriculture is the lack of a stable workforce.
“Who knew that the first thing the entire the supply chain sitting around the AGree table would agree [on] is a gigantic, important issue,” Atwood said. She noted of the dairy industry, “We were told the cows only speak Spanish.”
While AGree is centered on consensus, the group’s efforts put it in the middle of the divide between President Barack Obama and Republicans who will control both chambers of Congress. Atwood said AGree supports “comprehensive reform by Congress” and would be wary of further division on immigration that could come from executive action.
“I’m very frustrated with what’s happening here,” Atwood said. “I think AGree’s position will remain steadfast going forward. We envision a U.S. ag system that has a stable workforce that includes practical and economically viable guest-worker programs.”
AGree isn’t delving into EPA’s efforts to rewrite the definition of waters of the U.S. under the Clean Water Act. However, AGree’s farm leaders are championing increased conservation efforts on working lands that would translate into improvements in water quality. AGree wants to build on efforts to promote soil health through reduced tillage and growing cover crops.
“Soil health is important and a precursor to water quality,” said Jim Moseley, an Indiana farmer and former USDA deputy secretary from 2001-2005. Moseley now serves as a co-chairman for AGree. “I think it’s one of the issues as far as farmers are concerned where we can approach them on soil health and we don’t get ‘Here’s the government again coming in.’ It’s a non-regulated resource, thankfully.”
There’s an interest and a motivation on soil health among farmers while private companies want to create sustainability indices for their supply chains. Moseley cited the Field to Market concept. “That’s an incredibly important piece of the puzzle because that’s already out there.”
“The ability of those healthy soils to sustain that is greater,” Moseley said.
Kristin Weeks Duncanson, a Minnesota farmer and environmental consultant, is a former American Soybean Association board member and now is on AGree’s advisory committee. Duncanson worked with Moseley’s team on conservation recommendations. She said it’s important to make a business case to producers that cooperative conservation translates into smart fiscal sense.
“We know that stewardship pays in the long run because you are more productive and therefore more profitable,” Duncanson said.
AGree also wants to help foster water-quality improvements through watershed conservation projects in which farmers and organizations within a watershed all work to reach a conservation goal. That theme is similar to some of the goals of the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program at USDA under the new farm bill. Moseley sees more efforts to take the soil-health model and help build out those practices through watershed. AGree would seek to help bring groups and resources together in areas to develop such watershed programs.
“We’re connectors of the dots. What AGree can do is find the pieces of the puzzle that already exist,” Moseley said. “We are not trying to be an entity in any way, shape, or form that competes or supersedes with any other activity out there. It is only designed to bring people together to think about things.”
AGree has struck up a conversation with some in the crop insurance industry about ways to offer incentives to farmers who apply soil-health practices such as no-till farming and growing cover crops.
Healthier soils should lower risk, but there needs to be data to show there’s a discount for improving soil health.
“We’re not going to implement the policy, but all we are going to do at AGree is bring people to the table and see if we can explore this,” Moseley said of AGree’s approach to problems.
Moseley said AGree also wants to pursue ways to develop regulatory “safe harbors” for farmers who implement more conservation practices. He noted farmers are increasingly worried about regulatory issues because of potential federal rules or backlash at the state level because of water problems. “Regulatory protection from litigation, I think, is a powerful motivator,” Moseley said.
AGree also has several recommendations to help foster more international agricultural development programs to boost food security. That would include supporting a bipartisan bill that would codify the Obama Administration’s Feed the Future initiative. Senators and congressmen introduced the bill before going on break in January. “We’re going bigger than Feed the Future,” Atwood said. “We think USDA also has an important role to play, particularly in research and education.”
Domestically, AGree also thinks food and nutrition could be improved by better coordinating various government programs, reviewing federal dietary recommendations to deal with obesity and encouraging a greater role for private businesses and community efforts. These recommendations come as new chairmen on the House and Senate Agriculture Committee has already suggested re-examining federal food programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
AGree is releasing its reports and reiterating some initiatives Monday in preparation for a forum Nov. 18 in Washington with National Geographic magazine, which has put an emphasis on global food production in its recent issues.
“The whole idea is to go put it into action.” Atwood said.