bryn-birdThis month, APHA’s Year of Climate Change and Health is looking at agriculture and food safety and security. Due to the extreme weather patterns, pests and disease of climate change, US farmers need help to reduce some of the risk of agriculture and support to ensure a safe and abundant food system. Today’s guest blogger is Bryn Bird, MPH. She is a co-owner of her family’s 110-acre Bird’s Haven Farms outside of Granville, OH, and works with the Washington, DC-based Rural Coalition to advocate for the country’s socially disadvantaged farmers through federal policy reform.

My family has been farming vegetables in Central Ohio for 22 years, and every year we begin each season completely unsure of what extreme weather conditions, pests or crop disease we will face. In the past decade, we have been through extreme drought, extreme rain, record-breaking cold winters to mild winters without needed snow precipitation.

This year, we saw cucumber wilt and complete crop loss because the mild winter did not kill off cucumber beetles as expected. The extreme weather, pests and disease of climate change are not just felt by our family, but also by all farmers across North America. There is inherent risk in farming, but in the age of climate change, farmers can no longer simply adapt without more equitable governmental policies and programs focused on supporting farmers.

Managing risk
The Risk Management Agency, within the US Department of Agriculture, is tasked with reducing some of the risk of agriculture and supporting a safe and abundant food system. RMA will become even more vitally important over the next several decades as climate change continues to create extreme weather patterns and disease epidemics.

Agriculture in the US faces not only the impact of climate change, but also the aging out of most of American’s farmers. With the average age of the American farmer close to 60, it is projected that 10 percent of all farmland (93 million acres) is expected to be transferred between 2015 and 2019. The key to insuring our country’s food security, especially in this changing climate, is to ensure this land stays in agricultural use.

However, this is where a perfect storm could be potentially brewing. If farming becomes too risky, this land can be lost to development. Currently, RMA manages risk through the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, which administers the federal crop insurance program. Crop insurance is some of the most complex federal policy there is (along with dairy price support) and would require an entire second or third blog post to fully explain.

birds-haven-farmThe key to crop insurance, however, is that its programs are built and weighted on the increased production of commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans. These crops are low-cost input crops and allow for very specific crop insurance modeling. These crops also need hundreds to thousands of acres to turn a profit for family farmers. This type of safety net, which is built on production of such large-acreage commodity crops, lessens our country’s crop diversity and food security and inhibits new and beginning farmers from entering farming. Access to land is the biggest obstacle for beginning farmers, and the acreage needed for commodity production makes it almost impossible.

A more equitable model
The risk is even more inherent for farmers of color, and climate change could further exacerbate this. Farmers of color have long faced discrimination from USDA programs and policies, going as far back as the Federal Homestead Act of 1862. Because of this, farmers of color — in large majority — own and operate smaller parcels of land.

Smaller land ownership tends to lead to a difference in cropping systems. Eighteen to 20 percent of farms that grow vegetables, melons, fruits and tree nuts are operated by farmers of color. As mentioned, risk management has not yet caught up to diversified crop farming. RMA and federal crop insurance programs continue to insure commodity crops on a large scale and leave smaller and diverse farmer at higher risk.

Recently, RMA piloted whole-farm insurance, which allows farmers to insure the farm, rather than crop-by-crop production. On our farm alone, we grow 67 different crops. The paperwork to insure an eighth of an acre of eggplant would be unrealistic. This type of whole-farm insurance is RMA’s initial attempt to develop safety nets for specialty crop farmers.

USDA also subsidized whole-farm insurance for beginning farmers to further limit the risk to more diverse farms. However, there is still no cost-share program for socially disadvantaged farmers, and this product is new and not without its problems. This product does show USDA’s willingness to listen to the issues and begin to search for solutions, however.

A matter of food security
Without safety net solutions, the inherent risks to diverse and specialty crop farmers — exacerbated by climate change — are destined to push farmers out and increase the production of more commodity crops. Our country cannot simply become a bread basket and still have food security. Crop diversity is essential for ensuring resilience in the face of climate change.

We need what is often referred to as a revitalized, “salad bowl.” The US has experienced crop diversity loss over the past few decades and, since the 1970s, has centralized on three main crops — corn, soybeans and wheat. This loss of crop diversity puts our country at risk for complete crop loss during severe weather, pests and disease associated with climate change. The more diverse the crops in a given area, the more resilient they are likely to be.birds-haven-farms-2

Risk management for diverse farmers is one of the most basic ways to ensure our resilience in the face of climate change. The Rural Coalition/Coalición Rural is one of the organizations working to develop real-world, policy-based solutions. An alliance of farmers, farmworkers, indigenous, migrant and working people from the US, Mexico, Canada and beyond, Rural Coalition advocates for 50 grassroots member organizations that primarily serve socially disadvantaged producers and underserved rural communities.

Through our shared efforts, we were able to secure more than 30 sections of policies in the 2008 Farm Bill that provide a seat at the table in agriculture for the producers, farmworkers and communities we serve. The Farm Bill is the nation’s biggest piece of agricultural legislation and is updated every five years. The 2018 Farm Bill will go before the House Agriculture Committee next year with climate change and food security at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

We look to secure cost-share programs for crop insurance for socially disadvantaged farmers and increased product availability for specialty crop farmers. We want you to join us in this fight and in bringing attention to Farm Bill policy and its intersection with climate change. Sign-Up to join us for weekly phone calls regarding most up-to-date Farm Bill action, and join our list-serve to receive action alerts around these and other farm bill issues.

For more on the intersection of climate change and agriculture, food safety and security, register for the July 27 webinar, “Climate Changes Health: How Climate is Changing Your Dinner Plans,” taking place from 1-2 pm EST. Part of the Year of Climate Change and Health webinar series, this sixth installment features public health experts covering topics including food systems, food production, the use of energy in food distribution and how each affects our health. This webinar is brought to you APHA and Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future.