A new farm bill that will impact agriculture, nutrition, disaster recovery, and climate change programs in every county in the nation over the next five years is up for congressional reauthorization before the end of the current session.
The newly established Task Force on Agriculture and Nutrition in the 21st Century conducted a Regional Agricultural Roundtable in Jackson on July 7 to hear from farmer-producers, stakeholders, and consumers on how various programs under the 2018 Farm Bill have worked for them and what they would like to see included in the 2023 Farm Bill.
Since 1933, both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees have passed their own farm bills before reconciling the two and enacting a new bill. The process takes place every five years and the 2023 Farm Bill should pass before September 30, the expiration date of the current 2018 bill.
Democratic Task Force Chair Rep. Bennie Thompson, who was appointed by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries to take the lead in gathering opinions and sentiments that might be used in crafting the new bill, urged the crowd of nearly 200 to step forward with their own ideas of what works and what is still needed for the massive USDA program.
The 2018 Farm Bill was reported as reauthorizing $867 billion with nutrition programs getting a little over 70 percent of the total.
The 2018 Farm Bill had 12 (XII) titles that included: Commodity Programs, Conservation, Trade; Nutrition, Credit, Rural Development, Research, Extension and Related Matters; Forestry, Energy, Horticulture, Crop Insurance, and Miscellaneous.
“We’re here to have a conversation,” Thompson said. “We passed out information that included every aspect of the current farm bill – farming, nutrition, crop insurance, all of it, everything. And again, you have to understand how this bill has applicability to every county or parish or city in America.
“The old history of how people were treated by USDA is in the past,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to make it work. It’s not perfect. But it only gets perfect if we continue to work at it. What we need to hear from you is what are those things in the farm bill that’re working and what are those things that haven’t worked? And what are things you would like to see in the farm bill that’re not in it if we can get it in the bill?”
Thompson introduced program moderator Barbara Gray, chair of the state committee for the Farm Service Agency (FSA), and disclosed that she was the “only female FSA chief of a state committee in the whole country.”
“The question is whether our agencies are open to women and people of color,” he said. “It ought to be available to everybody. In this great country of ours we want to make sure the Department of Agriculture is open for business for everybody. Part of this conversation is to make sure that our government works for everybody – those who are in it, those who want to get in it, and those who are thinking about it, and there ought to be a place for everyone at the table for it to happen.”
The Regional Roundtable is one of four such hearings that are expected to encompass the entire country, Thompson said. Similar Task Force regional discussions are scheduled for Connecticut, California, and Wisconsin.
Last Friday’s hearing was focused on the South and included representations from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. Louisiana’s 2nd District Representative Troy Carter of New Orleans served as a co-host for most of the 3 1/2 hour program.
Carter said the concerns of local people are as important as the concerns of the rest of America.
“We’re here to talk about the importance of the farm bill – about food insecurity, justice for Black farmers, and nutrition,” Carter said. “We know that 70 percent of African Americans are lactose intolerant. We know that 85 percent of Asian Americans are lactose intolerant, and 65 percent of Latinos are lactose intolerant. Yet, each day in America, in public schools, our kids are expected to belly up to the bar, have lunch, and drink milk.
“If there is a problem of lactose intolerance, we should have the remedy as the alternative,” he said. “We have to do better in making sure that we’re listening, watching, asking (about) all those issues of importance in the farm bill.”
Despite Carter’s warnings about the detrimental effect of white milk on the majority of Mississippi’s public school students, who are lactose intolerant, a spokesman for the Mississippi Dairy Farmers’ Association advocated for the inclusion of whole milk with school meals. Recent research results on the effects of whole milk are available and should be included in the new farm bill, he said.
A spokesperson for the Catfish Farmers of America said he was happy to see the inclusion of catfish industry issues in the farm bill. Catfish farmers who suffer losses due to climate damage and bird predation need to be compensated for such damages, he said. Bird depredation on the fish industry is a growing problem, he said. But the birds in question are a protected species. And besides eating the fish, they spread disease. All of this should be included on the list of insured losses, the industry advocate said.
James Cummings, executive director of the private group Wildlife Mississippi and a former staff member for the late Sen. Thad Cochran, says Mississippi is losing millions of federal dollars because of its inadequate support for wildlife conservation programs.
The Biden administration is prepared to allocate billions of dollars to conservation, said Cummins, but Mississippi decision makers have left the state unprepared to qualify for the bulk of the conservation funds.
“If it wasn’t for the farm bill, including the nutrition title, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today,” said Cummins, a native of Greenville.
Cummins told Thompson that his support of farm bill conservation programs has been a great asset to the state.
“Since you’ve been elected to Congress,” he said, “Mississippi has the highest percentage of its agricultural land in conservation than any other state, according to the Farm Bureau.”
Cummins is also president of the Boone and Crockett Club, reputed to be the oldest conservation club in North America. He views Theodore Roosevelt as his role model in that Roosevelt was an avid hunter but was equally devoted to the conservation of wildlife and forests.
Janell Edwards, executive director of Fayette Community Service Organization (FCSO), Inc., came to Jefferson County, Mississippi, in 2006 from Savannah and set up her office in Fayette.
“We’re one of the most impoverished, food desert communities in the state,” she said, speaking of Fayette.
Her organization initially promoted health and wealth through entrepreneurship among young men and women through service and guidance.
“When we arrived here, we established what we called a Feed-to-the-Need program, where you plant to nurture and harvest and create a value-added product to sell,” she said.
“We planted a fresh fruit tree on our children’s campus, and we started a community agricultural demonstration site for community members to come out for us to instruct them on how to plant something at their home. We’ll have somebody growing cucumbers, somebody else growing tomatoes, and still someone else growing squash.
“Our overall goal on the wealth side is creating economic sustainability in our community.
“We were picked up by WJTV-Channel 12, and on the news broadcast they said, ‘The fattest county in America is teaching their children about nutrition.’ I was surprised to hear this.”
After seeing another report in the Clarion Ledger that repeated the claim that Jefferson County was indeed the “fattest,” meaning the most obese county per capita, in the U.S.A., Edwards and her husband, Deeter Edwards, changed the basic focus of their business.
“We created the ‘Fat-to-Fit Olympic Games.’” The program ran for nine years in Jefferson County except for the three years of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. As a result, Jefferson County has changed its status in the annals of obesity.
“Jefferson County is not the most obese county anymore,” Edwards said. “And I attribute that to the nine consecutive years of the Fat-to-Fit Olympic Games.”
Never having relied on federal funds, Edwards said she and her husband knocked on doors of local businesses and were able to raise funds sufficient enough to carry them through their first nine years. They have since then decided to also take the program to college campuses.
“We want our children to be educated,” Edwards said. “But more importantly, we want them to be fit. We learned at the Global Obesity Summit held here in 2010, with 32 doctors from 32 countries who were here, that at least 12 years would be shaved off the lifespan of our children because of the chronic conditions that come from the effects of childhood obesity.”
They will revive their program at Tougaloo College beginning this month. The board of directors decided to make the HBCU institutions the focus of their revived program because childhood obesity affects Brown and Black children at a 50 percent higher prevalence than any other ethnicity.
Having never relied on government funding for her program, Edwards is exploring ways in which the new farm bill might benefit the FCSO program.
“That’s why we’re here now. We’re knocking on doors seeking sponsorship for this event.”
The 10th Annual Fat-to-Fitness Olympic Games are scheduled to begin on the campus of Tougaloo College at 8 a.m. July 22 and at 12:30 p.m. on July 23. The program is free and open to the public.
J’Nay Domineck is an urban conservationist with the USDA National Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) program, serving four counties from the Pearl Service Office, including Hinds, Madison, Oktibbeha, and Rankin counties.
“We help farmers put conservation practices on the ground,” she said. “With me in urban areas, I help farmers within cities and municipalities implement conservation systems, whether that’s their soil lacking nutrients [or] they need to plant raised beds…if they would like to get a water well so they can have fresh water [to] water their vegetables or if they have livestock operations that they’d like to have clean water for, we do projects of that nature.”
To provide for well water, she says, “We go to where the problems are. Let’s just say that you have the need for clean water…we come out and we look at the situation. If you qualify for the well, we determine how many feet we need to dig down and we come up with a payment scenario. [Then] we say, ‘This is how much we pay, and this is your share of paying the cost of the well.’”
The lifespan of a well is 20 years. But if the well is faulty – or another is needed for multiple practices, that is for planting grass or to facilitate grazing – the NCRS program can allow those adjustments in the contract, she said.
Magnolia Medical Foundation CEO, Dr. Erica Thompson, came to the forum “to be informed and enlightened about the upcoming farm bill concerns for Mississippi and surrounding states.”
“I serve with Magnolia Medical Foundation,” she said. “And in Mississippi, we have a food pantry that services quite a few families. We have seen an increase in the use of our food pantry here in Midtown Jackson. And it is important that we get funds to pay for food and fresh vegetables for our program and to make sure it remains a part of the farm bill.”
Thompson says the recent floods and tornadoes in Mississippi have had a notable effect on her program.
“We have been able to manage and continue our programs. But sometimes we have more limited resources than we’ve had in the past. And we’ve had more folks utilizing the services, so we know there is a great demand. But our supply has not been as large. So, we are just hoping that in this farm bill, those numbers could be increased through food subsidies, and we can continue to bring an adequate supply of healthy food to women, children and families.”
Organizations and individuals with existing documents on the farm bill priorities are asked to share them with Congressman Thompson’s office by emailing to staff member Sheldon Hightower at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, organization, and contact information.