In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of farms went out of business, in what became known as the farm crisis. As farmers left the land, selling their farms to surviving neighbors who consolidated their holdings in larger and larger tracts and leaving fewer people to buy seeds, tractors, or morning coffee at the diner, rural towns withered up too.
The farm crisis dramatically changed the community and economics of rural America in ways still being felt today, but it didn't happen without a fight. Organizations sprang up in the Midwest, the South and Great Plains - farmers and supporters started crisis hotlines, provided basic support services like food donations and mental health services, and took their tractors and voices to the streets and state houses to raise awareness of their plight and call for relief. It was a complicated mix of politics and economics that led to the thousands of farm foreclosures, but a key factor was an agricultural policy that encouraged consolidation and fewer farmers on the land. With policy at the heart of the crisis, it wasn't long before farmers set up shop in Washington, DC.
The National Save the Family Farm Coalition opened its doors in 1986, as an alliance of rural organizations committed to the preservation of a strong farm-based rural economy. Later dropping "Save the" from its name to more broadly address needs of family farmers not facing an immediate crisis, the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) has now spent thirty years advocating for "fair prices, local jobs [and] fresh foods" for Iowa grain farmers, Missouri cattlemen, Mississippi vegetable producers, Massachusetts fishing families and many more. NFFC currently has 25 member organizations representing 32 states, who work regionally on farm and food issues that affect them locally, and through the Coalition, collaborate on national campaigns building on each group's experience and expertise.
With rural America in the spotlight more than it has been in recent years and with rumblings of another farm crisis on the horizon, NFFC is also facing a transformational moment from within: the death in January of longtime executive director, Kathy Ozer, from lymphoma, which will be felt across the family farm community for many years. However, the farmers and food producers who make up NFFC's board of directors and membership, along with the coalition's many allies, are no strangers to struggle, and will doubtless determine how to keep moving forward and strengthen the work in this critical time.
Through a Series of Crises
NFFC had early success in Washington; one of its first projects was spearheading development of a bill to address the credit issues at the center of many of the farm foreclosures. Kathy had only recently been brought onboard as director, just a few years out of college, but, with a style that would define the rest of her tenure, she jumped right in, becoming one of the key drafters of the 1987 Agricultural Credit Act. The law was tremendously important, allowing thousands of farmers to refinance their debt and remain on their land. NFFC conducted outreach and training sessions with groups like the Farmers Legal Action Group (FLAG) to inform farmers of their rights under the law and provide tools to defend their farms. Credit, debt and financing are hardly the sexy parts of farming, but they are the issues on which farms live or die; as such, the Coalition has worked for decades to ensure access to credit for all farmers and fighting long-term discriminatory lending practices at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In the early 1990s, a similar crisis began to hit the dairy sector. Since 1970, the number of US dairy farms has dropped by more than 90 percent, from 640,000 to fewer than 60,000 today. With the assistance of NFFC throughout the 1990s and 2000s, dairy farmers met with lawmakers, testified before Congress and filed legal action against dairy processors, including a successful 2008 suit in which Dairy Farmers of America was fined $12 million for price manipulation. The coalition also provided a support space for struggling dairy farmers - many of whom, like so many farmers, tend to be private - to share their experiences and feel less isolated. One longtime advocate posits that the weekly calls of the NFFC Dairy Subcommittee, begun in 2002, may have kept some farmers alive in the worst of times.
"A Seat at the Table"
It wasn't just the crisis issues, though there have been plenty of those. NFFC has fought for years alongside partner groups like Rural Coalition, Farm Aid, Food and Water Watch and many others, to bring the voices and concerns of family farmers and rural America to the halls of Washington every day. The coalition has been a part of shaping five farm bills, other food systems legislation such as the Child Nutrition Act, and the regular grind of the annual appropriations and implementation processes. Farmers were an integral part of the process; as producers from Iowa to Georgia said in the days following Kathy's death, "We've always had a seat at the table because of Kathy."
In the 1990 farm bill, NFFC was instrumental in securing authorization and funding for Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers (also known as the 2501 Program, for the section that authorized it), which sought to address USDA's historical discrimination towards minority farmers. In 1996, NFFC championed the creation of the Community Food Projects (CFP) Competitive Grants Program at USDA, which has provided up to $10 million in annual matching funds since then for community-based food and farm partnerships seeking address food insecurity. The CFP program has been instrumental in helping communities build projects such as food hubs, immigrant and refugee farm training, farmers' markets, community kitchens and more.
Colleagues also credit NFFC for playing a significant role in maintaining funding for programs regularly on the federal chopping block, defeat of several trade deals, passage of Country of Origin Labeling for meat (before its eventual Congressional repeal), and movement towards implementation of rules to protect livestock farmers.
The scope of NFFC reaches beyond policy, however. Thirty years' worth of files at the NFFC office, just steps from the US Capitol Building and Supreme Court, attest to a broad understanding of food and farmer issues: in addition to countless copies of the Congressional Record and sign-on letters, there are files on fisheries, restaurant workers, climate change, living wage campaigns, food safety, land grabs and global poverty. Kathy sat on the board of the Citizens Trade Committee and Jobs with Justice, and the Coalition was a founding member of the Community Food Security Coalition and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, among many other partnerships and coalitions it has participated in through the decades.
If you haven't heard of NFFC until now, it may be by design. Reflecting on the coalition shortly after Kathy's death, Ralph Paige, former Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and a longtime friend and colleague, said, "There's no other organization that's in the movement helping farmers excel like NFFC." Staff would work closely with its member organizations to think through and write policy and how to advocate for it. And then, Paige said, Kathy and the staff "would step back so that all the credit would go to you."
As farmers and rural economies face a moment that looks to have striking parallels to the farm crisis from which NFFC arose, sustaining and growing the coalition's work, and that of all of its member organizations, will be more important than ever.