Our Farms and Land Use Committee approved our endorsement of the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA). We've spotlighted relevant regional implications and opportunities for the priorities included in the bill.
Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) in 2021 and reintroduced the legislation to the House in March 2023 as part of the reauthorization process of the 2023 Farm Bill. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced a Senate version the same day. Forty-two Democratic representatives co-sponsored the House marker bill, and twelve Democratic senators and one Independent senator co-sponsored the Senate marker bill.
Organizational endorsement requests for the ARA were due in June 2023. National and state-level organizations requested that our Food Policy Council (FPC) endorse the bill. After reflecting upon our vision of creating a resilient regional food system with attention to social, economic, and environmental resilience, we endorsed the marker bill.
Despite lively conversations reflecting rich comments and insightful questions, we did not have the ability to provide feedback in the act of endorsing the bill, as endorsements are usually a "yay or nay" opportunity. However, we are taking the chance here to provide some critique and context for the ARA through the regional lens of our FPC and its members.
Reflection on the Partisan Support
As a program of a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council is nonpartisan and does not endorse bills based on political affiliation. In discussing the ARA, FPC Members brought up questions and concerns about the partisan support of the ARA by federal legislators. We wondered about the lack of Republican legislative support for the bill and what that might mean for our nonpartisan group. We concluded that the legislative support for the bill falling along party lines (until now at least) is a reflection of the skewed view within the national-level conversation that resilience and climate action are "party issues."
The FPC believes that regional resilience and climate action impacts everyone within the region, especially frontline workers within the food system. Our blog is one tool we use to demonstrate the importance of implementing resilient practices that strengthen our regional food system, whatever political affiliation our individual FPC Members may have.
ARA Bill Priorities and Sections
The ARA lists priorities matching the section titles for the full bill. The main priorities of the ARA are:
Farmland Preservation and Farmland Viability
On-Farm Renewable Energy
Food Loss and Waste
Each section of the bill provides an explanation of how the federal government can support the achievement of one priority, along with suggested appropriations and mandatory budgetary amounts.
Since our scope is regional food systems, we focused on exploring some of the proposed regional programming:
Regional Hubs for Risk Adaptation and Mitigation to Climate Change
As part of the Research section of the ARA, the bill requires the establishment of Regional Hubs for Risk Adaptation and Mitigation to Climate Change. The development of the Regional Hubs would require collaboration among federal departments that include but are not limited to:
the Department of Agriculture,
the Department of Interior,
the Department of Energy, and
the Environment Protection Agency.
This network of departments would "provide to farmers, ranchers, forest landowners, and other agricultural and natural resource managers science-based, region-specific, cost-effective, and practical information and program support for science-informed decision making in light of the increased costs, opportunities, risks, and vulnerabilities associated with a changing climate; and access to assistance to implement that decision making."
Additional partners at the state and regional levels include colleges and universities, cooperative extension services, private entities, and nonprofit and community-based organizations. There are several potential responsibilities the Regional Hub network would adopt. You can read more about the Regional Hubs in Section 201 of the ARA.
Our FPC Members have asked: Where is the money coming from? Rep. Pingree has an answer! The funding for the Regional Hub network would be funded through the appropriations process, with a recommendation of at least $50,000,000 each year, from 2024 to 2028.
To learn more about the difference between mandatory/authorization funding and appropriations funding, read the brief overview on the Senate Committee on Appropriations website.
We have a couple of recommendations for the establishment of Regional Hubs:
Though there are several listed responsibilities the Regional Hubs must take on, no clear directives are given to the USDA and other federal departments that provide oversight of the responsibilities.
In addition, the potential partner institutions are not provided clear directives on how to become partners.
The USDA has its own rulemaking process, which could allow the agency to define clearer parameters. The ARA provides the opportunity for the USDA to be flexible within the rulemaking process. This latitude could be an issue if the USDA follows the letter of the law but not the intention, which could dilute the potential impact or make the process so complicated it does not allow for stakeholder buy-in.
As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition outlines in the case of the whole-farm insurance program, clear directives from the beginning are necessary for a program's successful implementation. Guidelines should allow for simplified management of and accessible entry into new programs.
National and Regional Agroforestry Centers
The Agroforestry Centers are another area of regional programming directed under the ARA. The Centers are service of the priority of soil health. The ARA defines agroforestry as "a management system that intentionally integrates trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to build more profitable and weather-resilient farms, ranches, and communities, address natural resource concerns and conservation needs, and establish productive and sustainable land use practices."
The Centers are required to be established through the collaboration of the USDA's Secretary of Agriculture and the Chief of Forest Services. The headquarters would be located in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the Secretary of Agriculture would be required to establish at least three regional centers as determined by the Secretary. Specification of funding related to the Centers is thus-far limited, except for establishing an agroforestry-projects grant pool for a total of $25,000,00 per year from 2024 to 2028.
FPC Members and stakeholders find the ARA's definition of agroforestry somewhat limited, as it does not pay explicit attention to food-producing trees as a form of agroforestry. The bill's definition limits all trees (food-producing or not) to tools that support annual food production or livestock farming through climate-focused practices. The limitation is significant, because it does not reflect the needs of another Green Umbrella program, The Common Orchard Project, or the value that fruit and nut trees offer to our regional food system as sources of nutrition and community-building.
We can understand the ARA definition as implicitly including food-producing trees in the frame of agroforestry. However, the relevant use of food-producing and other trees in the ARA is very limited. The ARA's stipulated support from the USDA for food-producing trees only extends to the trees' use in sequestering carbon emissions and mitigating climate change.
The USDA has designated food-producing trees in this way for several iterations of the Farm Bill. Food-producing trees continue to receive minimal support through Farm Bill programming for their use to produce "specialty crops" (fruits and nuts) that feed people.
The directives of the Agroforestry Section are much clearer than the directives for Regional Hubs, but they leave us with an issue all the same. The requirement to establish at least three Regional Agroforestry Centers limits the scope and capabilities of the Centers, given that the USDA defines at least nine Farm Resource Regions. Which regions will host Centers is not stipulated.
There is much more to the ARA than the two sections we examine here. If you want to learn more about the House and Senate versions of the bill, please read the linked sources above so that you can come to your own conclusions!
No bill is "perfect," and critique doesn't dilute or weaken our endorsement of the Agriculture Resilience Act. There are nuances and trade-offs with any legislation. We share our questions and provide feedback on what we would like to see improved. Our FPC is committed to doing our due diligence in researching policy opportunities, advocating for what would work best for our region, and reflecting out the needs and desires of our stakeholders.
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