‘Communities, Not Corporations’: Farmers March for Climate Action in D.C. - Modern Farmer

‘Communities, Not Corporations’: Farmers March for Climate Action in D.C.

Farmers and advocates took to the streets of Washington, D.C. in a united call for racial justice, farmworker rights and climate solutions in the upcoming Farm Bill.

Lydia Nebel, the farm director at KC Farm School in Kansas City, MO., wants to see more cost sharing programs for young farmers to acquire land in the 2023 farm bill.
Photography by Marin Scotten.

Hundreds of farmers and farmworkers gathered in Washington, D.C. this week to demand that Congress prioritize farmer-led climate solutions in the 2023 Farm Bill. 

On Tuesday, farmers and their allies marched from Freedom Plaza to Capitol Hill, sharing stories of how the climate crisis has affected their farms and communities. On Wednesday, farmers and advocates met with various congressional offices to state their needs and what they want to see included in the upcoming bill.

The three-day event, called Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience, was organized by more than two dozen organizations, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the HEAL Food Alliance.

The Farm Bill is a package of legislation passed every five years that has a significant impact on the livelihoods of farmers around the country. Some of the top priorities for the event’s attendees are racial justice, farmworker rights, support for climate-friendly farming practices and equitable access to farmland. Nearly every demand emphasized that Congress should prioritize communities over corporations.

Racial justice

At the event’s press conference on Wednesday, Dorathy Barker, owner of Olusanya Farm in Oxford, N.C., said previous farm bills were never written with Black and Indigenous folks or people of color (BIPOC) in mind. 

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a long history of discriminatory lending practices towards Black farmers. Many lending programs and incentives included in previous farm bills, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), were designed to protect the livelihoods of white farmers and agribusinesses, according to a report by the HEAL Food Alliance. 

“As much as things change, they stay the same for Black people,” says Barker. 

She wants to see more technical support and outreach assistance in Black communities. The problem isn’t a lack of funding — it’s distributing that funding to Black farmers on the ground, says Barker.

Farmers and their allies marched from Freedom Plaza to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, March 7. Photo by Marin Scotten.

Mercy Kariuki-McGee, co-founder of Haki Farmers Collective, says this united demand from farmers is happening at a crucial time, when immediate action is needed. 

“Black people, the people at the bottom, we are the ones who have to take on the heat. So we need solutions,” says Kariuki-McGee.

Farmworker rights

In its recommendations for the 2023 Farm Bill, the HEAL Food Alliance says the safety and well-being of food chain workers must be prioritized in policymaking in order to create an equitable food system.

Farmworker and advocate Marielena Vega says climate change has worsened the already harsh working conditions for farmworkers in recent years. In her hometown of Wilder, Idaho, there is little to no protection for farm workers from extreme heat, smoke from wildfires and poor air quality due to pesticide exposure.

A daughter of Mexican immigrants, Vega grew up watching her parents work long hours in Wilder’s apple orchards, where she eventually began working herself. She’s seen members of her community continue to work through illness and well into their eighties because they aren’t afforded the luxury of sick days or severance pay. 

Marielena Vega, a farmworker and advocate from Wilder, Idaho, addresses the crowd at the event’s press conference on Wednesday, March 8. Photo by Marin Scotten.

“As it stands right now, our farmworkers are out there every day, paid low wages, working under harsh conditions, missing out on core memories with their loved ones, being exposed to who knows what, just to not even be able to afford a day off or to afford the food that they grow and help harvest,” Vega said in her speech to the rally crowd on Tuesday. “That’s unacceptable.” 

Right now, workers in agriculture are exempt from overtime pay in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). According to the FLSA, farmworkers do not have to be paid time and a half for hours worked over 40 per week. Many states also exempt farmworkers from state-level minimum wage that is above the federal minimum of $7.25. 

Amy Tamayo, policy and advocacy coordinator at Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, says her organization is pushing for Congress to eliminate these wage exemptions. Alianza de Campesinas is the first national womens’ farmworker organization in the US. 

Women farmworkers are often most vulnerable to unsafe working conditions and face further challengessuch as sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination in the workplace, says Tamayo. She wants to see more outreach and support from the USDA to farmworker women.

Amy Tamayo is the policy and advocacy coordinator at Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. She attended the Rally for Resilience on Tuesday, March 7. Photo by Marin Scotten.

Climate-friendly practices

A major priority among all organizations that attended the event is support for farming practices that are climate-friendly and resilient to extreme weather conditions. This includes investments in organic, agroecological and regenerative systems.

Sarah Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farms, a 200-acre organic vegetable farm in Massachusetts, says worsening weather conditions make it a yearly challenge to keep farming. 

In 2021, Voiland lost a large amount of crop to record rainfall. In 2022, a severe drought was the challenge. She specifically wants the Agriculture Resilience Act to be included in this year’s Farm Bill. 

If implemented, the act would give farmers the tools they need for climate-friendly practices and increase their land’s resilience to extreme weather. It also includes financial assistance to improve soil health on agricultural lands, which Voiland says is crucial in sustaining small-scale farms. 

“There’s so much soil degradation that’s happened from mono-cropping industrial agriculture over the last seven years. We’ve lost so much and we need to fix that,” she says.

Access to land

Farmland has increasingly become a financial investment for multinational corporations and wealthy individuals in the last fifteen years. Many investors are buying large plots of farmland at high prices that small-scale farmers can’t afford. Because of this consolidation, farmland prices have nearly doubled since 2005, making land extremely inaccessible for beginning and young farmers. 

According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, secure access to farmland is the number one barrier for emerging farmers. Black farmers face additional challenges in acquiring farmland due to a long history of legal discrimination and lack of support from the USDA.

As part of its One Million Acres for the Future Campaign, the National Young Farmers Coalition called on Congress to invest $2.5 billion over the next 10 years to facilitate equitable land access for the next generation of farmers. 

“We need access. We need access to funding, we need access to land. I think land ownership is one of our biggest issues,” says Nyema Clark, a young farmer and the founder of Nurturing Roots Farm in Seattle, WA. 

It meant a lot to her to see so many people gathered in the nation’s capital to fight for a better food system.

“This is like a dream. Being able to be here with my sisters in farming, meeting more farmers of color that are out here trying to to save the world,” says Clark. 

Farmer Nyema Clark from Seattle, WA (right) marches in the Rally for Resilience on Tuesday, March 7. Photo by Marin Scotten.

Communities, not corporations

The many farmworkers at the event’s press conference were joined briefly by Congressman Ro Khanna, who stated his support and appreciation for the small-scale farmers who are stewarding land across the country. 

What needs to be addressed in policy is the corporate monopolization of nearly every aspect of agriculture, said Khanna. 

In July 2021, Khanna, along with Sen. Cory Booker, reintroduced the Farm System Reform Act to “create a level playing field for independent farmers” and “crack down on the monopolistic practices of meatpackers and corporate integrators.”

“You being here and you mobilizing will help us with these reform efforts, will help us take on these monopolies and will help us empower farmers to be part of the solution for climate,” Khanna said to the crowd of farmers on Wednesday morning.

The 2023 Farm Bill will be voted on by Congress later this year.

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Otis R. Needleman
11 months ago

Believe all farm workers should be paid a living wage and get benefits, period. I’d pay more for food to ensure that happens. The real money made in the food chain is made by the processors, anyway, not the farmers. Also believe all farm programs need to be available to all farmers, period. Doesn’t matter the color of the farmer’s hands, all need equal access to farm programs. Re climate change, can support some reasonable measures, knowing that the climate changes constantly. Remember not that long ago when we were warned of another approaching Ice Age.