“If we want rural communities to thrive we have to address agriculture consolidation and the policies that facilitate such consolidation. We cannot think that throwing a few million dollars here and there will solve the larger problem. Policy is the driver.” – Traci Bruckner
Traci Bruckner is a senior policy associate with the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska. Bruckner has a long and distinguished background working on rural issues. Her educational background is in political science and rural sociology. She and her husband have farmed; she has experienced the challenges producers face first-hand. She has previously served on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers.
The UC Food Observer has known Traci for many years and recently connected with her at Farm Aid’s 30th Anniversary, held in Chicago.
Bruckner describes her work in this way: “My passion is to help beginning farmers and ranchers, as well as improve conservation programs so they support sustainable agriculture and family farmers and ranchers.”
Q: Can you tell our readers a bit more about the Center for Rural Affairs?
Traci: We are unapologetically rural.
The Center for Rural Affairs is located in Nebraska. It was started in 1973 by a couple of Vista volunteers, Don Ralston and Marty Strange, who were working for the Goldenrod Hills Community Action Agency, a Nebraska non-profit corporation that was federally funded to eliminate poverty in five Northeast Nebraska counties (part of the federal “the war on poverty”). Newly elected President Nixon decided to eliminate the federal anti-poverty programs that were the central funding source for Goldenrod Hills. He appointed an angry conservative named Howard Phillips to shut down the federal agency that distributed the funding. Phillips issued a lengthy instruction detailing how to close out operations. The Goldenrod Hills board did not want to shut down: they thought there was a need for anti-poverty programs. They set out to preserve both the anti-poverty programs and engage in advocacy and development. The Center for Rural Affairs was born. The advocacy and development component was designed to address controversial questions of economic policy affecting the agricultural base of Northeast Nebraska and to generate creative approaches to economic development. We have about forty employees today.
Q: Your organization does work that is both hands-on and policy-based. Can you tell us more about the direct service work you do?
Traci: The direct service work involves two programs, our Farm and Community Program and Rural Enterprise Assistance Program (REAP). Farm and Community works with community members and farmers, including women and immigrant farmers. The project focuses on local food, farm-to-school and conservation related issues. Our Rural Enterprise Assistance Program works directly with rural entrepreneurs to provide them business planning, technical assistance, loans and more.
Q: The policy work seems varied. What are key issues?
Traci: Much of it relates to issues surrounding the consolidation of agriculture, strengthening rural economies, beginning farmers and conservation. We engage in a great deal of state level work on access to health care. Rural health care is a complicated issue. There are a higher percentage of residents struggling economically, a higher concentration of elderly residents and unique needs for health care access. This is important work for us to engage in. We invested a great deal of energy on the Affordable Care Act. Now our focus is on Medicaid expansion and whether that will happen in Nebraska. Health insurance is a barrier for farmers and has been for a long time. In Nebraska, we have 77,000 residents in the insurance gap.
At the federal level most of my work focuses on the Farm Bill, especially on programs that might help us avoid the consolidation of agriculture, that create opportunities for beginning and small and mid-sized farmers and those that support farmers and rancher conservation efforts. We are firmly engaging in a campaign for federal crop insurance reform.
Q: We hear a lot about crop insurance reform, but I am not certain people know much about its impact. What can you tell us?
Traci: The current structure of crop insurance has an enormous impact on the scale of agriculture in this nation. Crop insurance is a valuable tool for many farmers across the country. However, there is room for substantial reform. Under current law the federal government pays, on average, 62% of a farmer’s crop insurance premium on every acre, every year, regardless of how large or wealthy they are. There are simply no payment limits. That provides an advantage to well-capitalized farms over small and beginning farms.
In terms of conservation, crop insurance does not reward those farmers who are using strong conservation practices. They are paying the same premiums for crop insurance as those who aren’t doing as much, if anything. I believe that good practices in conservation stewardship should be rewarded by lowering premiums because those farmers are using such conservation to mitigate their risks.
On the access side, farmers who are doing things differently – those growing diverse cropping systems rather than just the four main commodity crops – face challenges under the current structure. Four crops—corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat—typically account for more than 70% of total acres enrolled in crop insurance, because those are the crops most supported under the current program. Therefore, the more diversified farmers have a harder time insuring all of the crops that make up their diverse rotation. We need to flip that on its head; we think they should have access, too.
A new product came through in the last Farm Bill, the Whole Farm Revenue Protection program, but it has some holes that need fixing. However, it is a step in the right direction in terms of providing revenue protection for farmers who diversify .
There’s an issue of transparency. Crop insurance companies make a lot of money, but there is no transparency about the amount of money approved insurance providers are making. And that makes it difficult to look at ways to renegotiate and save funding, rather than maximizing revenues for insurance companies. This is taxpayer money; there should be more transparency. Senator Pat Roberts [Republican – Kansas; he chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry] secured a provision that any renegotiation with approved crop insurance companies has to be budget neutral, meaning there will be no savings to the budget; rather, it would be plowed back into crop insurance.
[Read Traci’s recent post on crop insurance.]
Q: What things are you working on that are specific to Nebraska?
Traci: The state level work in Nebraska is unique. We used to have Initiative 300, the toughest anti-corporate farming law in the country. It was ruled unconstitutional. However, we still have a ban on packer ownership of livestock, in particular cattle and hogs. This is good public policy designed to preserve independent, family owned and operated livestock operations.
A bill was introduced that would lift the ban to allow packers to own hogs, it does not propose to lift the ban on packers owning cattle. We have stopped that bill for the past two years but it is coming back this year and we’re working on trying to beat that back again. Of course the packers want to own the hogs and have someone else be responsible for buildings, environmental risk, etc.
There’s also the issue of property tax. People want property tax relief, but we think that should be targeted. Ted Turner is the second largest private landowner in the U.S.; he owns vast acres of land in Nebraska…does a landowner of that size need tax relief? Probably not…but smaller farmers do.
In terms of the access to health insurance, we’re hoping to close the coverage gap and get 77,000 hard working Nebraskans access to health care.
Q: You’re doing some unique work on women and land ownership. Can you tell our readers about that?
The women and land ownership work is dear to my heart. This work is not on the policy side per se, but direct outreach to women landowners. The Women, Food and Agriculture Network [WFAN: based in Iowa] received a conservation innovation grant through NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service, a USDA agency]. It involved outreach about how to improve soil health. The idea was to talk to women farmers and women landowners who rent out their land about soil health. It’s been really rewarding.
I’ve met incredible women. We come to them with a format that is friendly and open to discussion. The idea is to build their knowledge and understanding of how to build soil health through cover cropping. The women are very receptive and learn from one another.
A barrier to cover crops is cost. But the pay back in soil health and fertility is evident. Once adoption rates get up, the cost of cover crop seeding will likely be less expensive. The vast majority of women we work with commit to the idea that they are going to improve their soil health a little. We provide access to resources to enable these women to redo leases with tenants to include terms that focus on soil practices. We connect them with beginning farmers so they can lease their land to beginners who will work with them to meet conservation objectives, etc. The policy component I provide is to talk to them about programs they can use to do these things. The women are just really interesting…they are full of confidence and some of them are pure spitfires. One lady told her tenant to do it this way or not farm on her land. In other cases, the tenant had a relationship with the husband and the husband has now passed away and the relationship has to be renegotiated in new ways.
Q: Do you see a growing urban-rural divide in your work?
Traci: Yes. Consumers want access to healthy food. Many people think they’re going to solve that solely with urban farming. Urban farming certainly has an important role to play in providing access to healthy food, but I think there is sometimes too little care about what happens to people in the middle of the country, too. Many aren’t aware of the consolidation of agriculture and the impact that has on family scale farming, how poverty affects rural communities and the other challenges facing rural America.
I think that the “foodie movement” is both a good and bad thing. I love good food and I have a lot of access to it. People think if you live in a rural community that there aren’t local food projects. There are. There seems too often to be a very urban perspective to the food system. But there are still millions of people that live in rural America. They matter, too. Consolidation of agriculture needs to be addressed head on.
Q: What is your biggest concern?
Traci: Consolidation. On my bulletin board I have a clipping from an ag journal in which I was quoted: “Supporting the smallest farms while subsidizing the nation’s largest farms and their efforts to get even bigger, will, in the end, will cost all those family farms in the middle.”
If we want rural communities to thrive we have to to address agriculture consolidation and the policies that facilitate such consolidation. We cannot think that throwing a few million dollars here and there will solve the larger problem. Policy is the driver.
Q: What national policies are needed?
Traci: Presidential candidates ought to have a thoughtful rural platform that includes stopping abuses in traditional farm programs that are helping the largest and wealthiest farms push beginning and small and mid-sized farms. I would also like to see a robust conservation platform that is targeted at beginning, small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers.
Q: If you could change one thing, what would it be?
Traci: I’d find a way to change federal agricultural policy so that it focuses on and targets resources to beginning, small- and mid-sized farms. And I would break down monopolies, especially in meatpacking. I’d like to see agricultural policy focusing on what serves rural communities best. The agricultural economy drives rural communities. I want to see a farm policy that truly strengthens family farms and rural communities.