“Another point of inspiration to me is the interest in food. There are so many more active citizens that are wearing a food hat, however they define it – nutrition, health, local, organic, other things. But when you add it all up together, I believe there’s a new constituency. It’s not yet fully formed or mobilized, but it’s there to be weighing in on things in a way that could eventually change the political landscape around food and agriculture issues. There’s hope.”

                                         – Ferd Hoefner



Ferd Hoefner is the policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). He has been NSAC’s senior Washington, D.C., representative since the organization’s founding in 1988 and oversees NSAC’s federal policy work. Prior to joining NSAC, Ferd spent nearly a decade representing Interfaith Action for Economic Justice and its predecessor, the Interreligious Taskforce on U.S. Food Policy, on issues relating to federal farm, food and development policy. A graduate of Oberlin College, Ferd also has pursued graduate studies in ethics and economics at Wesley Theological Seminary and American University.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is a nonprofit alliance of grassroots organizations. NSAC advocates for “federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities.” The coalition seeks to support small and mid-size family farms, protect natural resources, enhance rural communities and ensure access to healthy food.

Q: What issues/topics are engaging most of your time right now?

Ferd: What isn’t? (laughs). A lot of things. On our legislative front it would be the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization and specifically our campaign around farm-to-school grants. We’re trying to make the program better for schools by increasing funding for farm to school grants and for farmers by reducing some of the regulatory barriers that exist for getting food into schools. It’s a challenging year in congress because of the election cycle.

On the administrative reform front, we have a lot of irons in the fire. We’re working with the USDA to try to improve the organic certification cost share program, which is a payment program to help farmers with the cost of getting certified each year. It’s a great program, but we’re trying to improve the delivery so that it is easier for farmers to access.

We’re also working with the USDA to do more outreach to farmers on enrolling in conservation buffers and conservation reserve programs. It was quite a surprise earlier this year when the USDA withdrew the label standards for grass-fed meat. We’re trying to re-engage them in coming up with a new way of doing the grass-fed label.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing rural issues?

Ferd: The big rural issues have been the same for a long period of time: Hunger, poverty, inadequate housing, obesity … all of these issues disproportionately impact rural communities. Yes, they are society-wide problems, but they are particularly acute in rural areas. It’s hard to paint with too broad a brush, because there are exceptions, but the overall economic recovery from the Great Recession is taking longer in many areas, especially in rural areas without the benefit of oil and natural gas resources.

Certainly a pressing issue is how do we retain and even add people to rural communities through economic revitalization and opportunities. For NSAC particularly, that’s primarily considering how to get a new generation of farmers on the landscape. And of almost equal importance is how to develop small and micro-businesses that are located in rural communities and which are taking advantage of rural resources, including agriculture and the rapidly growing interest in local and regional food.

A great deal of attention gets focused on local food in urban areas. That’s especially true of press attention; the media is always looking to publicize this. But there is less awareness about where local food efforts are happening in the rural economy, as well. I think local food is a place where there are enormous growth opportunities for rural communities and young farmers.

Q: There’s certainly a growing interest in all things food. I recently participated in a meeting at UC where there was consensus that food literacy is essential and would be a valuable addition to/another goal of a University of California education. What are your thoughts?

Ferd: It’s very positive that so many more people are interested in food and the food system … certainly more than at any time in my lifetime. It’s beyond the point of being a fad and that’s great. I do think, however, that a lack of rural and farming literacy is impeding the conversation.

Q: What do we need to do differently in terms of sustainability and the food system?

Ferd: Lots. I feel as if there’s a need to get back to thinking about sustainability in farming and food system as a long-term, iterative goal. That’s the way we viewed it at the beginning of the sustainable agriculture movement.

It’s weighing on my mind right now because there’s currently increasing interest in saying sustainability means this label, that label, or this combination of labels, this innovation, or this particular technology. That’s true within both alternative and conventional agriculture.

I think it’s a real danger to try to say this is what sustainability is right now; as opposed to treating it as a goal we’re seeking and trying to improve towards. I worry it’s starting to move away from that future, goal-oriented understanding. In the 1980s people were aghast by the term sustainable agriculture; there were multimillion dollar campaigns against the word. Now many of those who opposed its use are embracing the term. There is a desire to create a sustainable agriculture constitution or a description. And I think that’s a danger.

Q: There seems to be a rural-urban divide, not only historically, but also today. Do you agree? Any observations?

Ferd: There is undeniably a divide in society as a whole to some degree, and part of that is perceived as rural not understanding urban, although from where I view things, it’s more the other way around. My observations deal with these perceptions of division at the federal policy level.

This is in part biographical. The first federal Farm Bill I worked on was in 1977. At that time, there was quite an explicit rural-urban linkage within Congress and in particular the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee to talk about these divides openly and to figure out where forces could be joined together and new coalitions built. We were not entirely successful, but our work did make an impact on that bill.

The most recent Farm Bill I worked on was in 2014. That same House of Representatives nearly destroyed the Farm Bill by trying to take the food part out of the farm part with nearly disastrous consequences. There are currently forces within the House of Representatives in particular that are back at the same point and talking about the same issues. It will be interesting to see what happens. It is a point that greatly divides members of Congress and to some extent the think-tank and pundit world.

It doesn’t actually divide lobbyists; we have somewhat a point of unanimity on this front, one that is particularly strong on the farm and commodities side. We have a strong realization that if the nutrition title were taken out of the Farm Bill and treated separately, we could cease to have a Farm Bill … or basic farm programs would be much more open to reform. Some on the progressive farm side of the ledger question whether we should support dividing the farm bill to secure greater farm reform, but we also must realize the outcome could be a much greater chance there would be nothing at all.

So that is all part of the urban-rural divide and how it plays out in Congress.The Farm Bill is not the only rural issue, of course. But on that issue in particular, the divide we’re seeing among House members – somewhat on the Democrat side, but much more on the Republican side – is leaving major question marks about whether this Farm Bill process we’ve had from the 1930s to today has a future or not.

Q: What federal policies do you think might improve the sustainability of agriculture?

Ferd: The one I would go to first would be trying to get our collective minds around moving the farm safety net (commodity programs and crop insurance programs) in the direction of serving – rather than opposing – sustainability. That’s a huge undertaking and it’s not necessarily understood beyond sustainable agriculture circles as a key question in general.

We think it’s front and center. We can’t continue to have our major program spending in agriculture leading in one direction and having the conservation set of programs moving in another direction. We must bring them together. In particular, paying close attention to crop insurance – the largest of our farm programs – is increasingly understood to be the major part of the farm safety net moving forward.

Unlike the advances made over time on commodity programs, there’s been nothing on the crop insurance front that we would consider reform. There are no real conservation benefits and quite a few environmental negatives that we think need to be addressed. And these changes include looking at crop insurance from a social point of view and a rural communities point of view. Currently, there is no limit on crop insurance: you can get as much subsidy as you can get land to farm. Hypothetically speaking, if someone were rich enough to buy all of Eastern Iowa, they could get subsidies on every acre they purchase. This doesn’t serve conservation or social objectives in any sense and thus fails the test of sound public policy. From a federal policy point of view, that’s one of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed.

Q: What food/ag policies should presidential candidates be talking about?

Ferd: As long as the Iowa caucuses lasted, some candidates talked about renewable fuel standards and ethanol … and there was lots of talk about immigration, although few candidates brought that discussion back to agriculture, which of course has a huge stake in immigration reform. There has been relatively little in the way of platform statements on either agriculture or rural issues more generally.

Both Democrat candidates (Clinton and Sanders) have an agriculture platform/statement and they are relatively similar. We have searched high and low and to our knowledge, the only farm policy platform on the Republican side is from Marco Rubio, and there is little or nothing in that one addressing any of the top sustainable agriculture and food system issues.

What should they be talking about? I already mentioned immigration. The debate is so polarized. But were they to think about it in terms of agriculture, there is so much that needs to be done and said. From our vantage point, we think that the nation ultimately needs to move to a place where there is much more free flow of labor in agriculture; we don’t favor continuing down the road of one guest worker program after another. But no one’s even talking about guest worker programs in this political climate.

Whoever wins, come December 1st, NSAC will be reminding their transition team that they have basically 12 months to develop whatever platform they’re going to have for the next Farm Bill … and that’s precious little time. The new president may opt not to be involved, treating it purely as a congressional issue … maybe that’s the way it goes. Going back, though, during the Bush administration and others over the course of time, there have been regional listening sessions, background papers, and administration-proposed platforms or proposals for the Farm Bill. It varies from administration to administration how they deal with it.

If they’re not talking about it in the campaign, I’m not sure they’ll be involved, but we will certainly remind them they have the opportunity if they plan ahead.

Q: What is most concerning to you right now?

Ferd: The political and partisan divide and vitriol is terrible; every time I think it can’t get worse it does. What does it mean for the new Supreme Court nominee? What does the Supreme Court situation mean for congressional workings for the rest of this year? It could bring things to a grinding halt. How do we move forward on federal food and farm policy in such a divisive and hyper-partisan period?

I do have hope, because we do see lots of people on both sides of the aisle that care about these issues. I attended a recent hearing on local food that attracted both Democrats and Republicans from the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee and they were discussing these issues.

On the substantive level, local food is an interesting subject. The political discussion that undergirds it is also interesting and needs to be further explored. We need to engage local agriculture and the consuming public interested in local and regional food if we’re going to be able to pass Farm Bills in the future. Local food needs to be part of the discussion and how we all think about that in the context of the next Farm Bill.

Q: What is inspiring you?

Ferd: I’m encouraged by some changes in agriculture research policy, especially agricultural research spending. There seems to be consensus emerging. People are finally saying we have to do something.

We’ve bemoaned the fact there’s barely a drop in the bucket for sustainable agriculture research. What’s inspiring is that everyone across food and agriculture has gotten past the point of saying it is OK that we’re on a spending plateau, we’re not seeing investment going up. We’ve seen all these other parts of the federal research budget going up but agriculture has stayed level, at best.

People are finally saying we need to take action. And it’s being discussed in five or six different settings and coalitions. And I think there’s a chance of coming out of these discussions with a strong message to policy makers that the future of the world’s food security and all sustainability issues (climate, water, food, etc.) hinge on whether we’re going to invest a reasonable amount of money into agricultural research.

Another thing that’s inspiring me is some shifting in farm practices. Specifically, conventional agriculture is paying so much more attention to cover cropping, which has been a foundational part of sustainable and organic farming but largely absent until now in conventional production. There’s a real conversation to be had here, because it’s becoming more mainstream. And it’s a great point at which to engage the two communities. The cover crop issue is really important, of course, but it’s also a starting point on other discussions: integrated pest management, crop rotation, composting and more. My hope is that not only is there growing interest, but that more R&D money will be invested and lead eventually to more universal adoption of cover cropping. And that may lead to the even larger conversations that are long overdue.

Another point of inspiration to me is the interest in food. There are so many more active citizens that are wearing a food hat, however they define it – nutrition, health, local, organic, other things. But when you add it all up together, I believe there’s a new constituency. It’s not yet fully formed or mobilized, but it’s there to be weighing in on things in a way that could eventually change the political landscape around food and agriculture issues. There’s hope.

Q: If you could change one thing, what would that be?

Ferd: Wearing my policy hat and thinking about that most intractable thing … that would be consolidation and concentration. And I mean particularly land ownership as well as consolidation and concentration on the marketing and processing side of the equation. I say that because both consolidation within farming and within agribusiness leads us further away from possibilities of sustainability in farming and the food system.

It’s hard to imagine campaigns large enough to address this issue at this point in time. It’s as if we as a country have decided – without passing a law that says it – that anti-trust is no longer a goal or objective. Yet, many people wonder why we have increasing inequality and they are concerned by it, and perhaps connections will be made, and move us back toward an economic opportunity and fairness society.

With respect to inequality on the farm side, I can say this with certainty: we’re not going to have the kind of farm system we need and the economic opportunities for coming generations to engage in farming unless we address land reform.

We need to address that. And there’s another aspect to that issue that’s vital to consider. It’s not only the consolidation of land holding, but also the increasing extent to which U.S. agriculture is on rented ground and the problems that come out of that, including constraints to conservation and innovation. How can you do those things on year-to-year leases? In that model, there can be no expectation of a long-term planning horizon or secure land tenure. These are mega issues. No matter how much we try to work on it, it’s not an issue that any administration in recent times has wanted to talk about, much less Congress.

Editor’s Note: Related Q&As that may interest you:

Ambassador Kenneth Quinn.

Anupama Joshi, National Farm to School Network. 

Traci Bruckner, Center for Rural Affairs.