Friends of Family Farmers has always had systemic change at the heart of our mission. We were founded on working within the system to create opportunities and remove barriers for small and midsize, socially and ecologically responsible farmers. This means in addition to our programs and coalition work, we bring the needs of our farmers straight to the people building the regulation and legislation that help or hinder the health of our local food system. We know that some of the problems we are working to address are too large to be solved by a small, grassroots organization like ours. We strategically choose opportunities to bring forward public comment, work with legislators and agency staff to have our farmers needs included, and respond to concerns brought to us by members of our community.
When the barriers to success are so often baked into the system we live in, we need to change the system to give family farmers an opportunity to thrive. When the laws and regulations are built to serve industrial agriculture that relies on market conditions and subsidies to drive profits in their export-oriented, extractive practices, it is no wonder that it is hard for small producers trying to honor the earth and their workers while feeding their communities. Not to mention working to remove the systemic barriers that make our food system inequitable at its core. More thriving small scale producers of all backgrounds, especially those from groups who have been intentionally excluded from the means of production in the industrialized food system, increase food sovereignty, boost rural economies, and increase environmental health which benefits us all. We work to make sure that people in power don’t have just one vision of agriculture in mind when crafting the parameters that all farmers have to follow.
What Advocacy at FoFF Looks Like
Advocacy at FoFF takes many forms. One of the things we are famous for is our legislative advocacy. After we gather input from all our farmer constituents and set priorities based on their pain points (learn more about that process in our previous post) our team goes to work to figure out what the most effective way to improve the situation is.
When there is a clear and possible goal that can be achieved through new legislation, we do engage in advocacy in Salem. We support bills that further our mission every session, when appropriate, spearhead specific policy solutions with the help of individual legislators, give testimony at committee hearings, and most importantly bring farmers directly to their representatives to give them perspective on how their choices impact small farmers. Many of these representatives and senators don’t have context for rural life, agricultural communities, or the reality of food production. Without concerted efforts to introduce them to the producers in their districts and the problems they face on the ground, these lawmakers have to rely on the information they get from the ever present industrial ag lobby groups. If they only hear the perspectives of the biggest farms, they will make decisions that serve those interests, not the whole diversity of Oregon’s farmers.
There are many ways to make change, and not all of them involve a new law being passed. Many of the mandates and regulations that cause the most headache for small producers come through interpretation/implementation of existing laws by agencies like the Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, or its federal counterpart the US Department of Agriculture. We continuously engage with our farmers to keep tabs on which specific issues and pain points they are coming up against. We bring these concerns to the folks implementing the policy through public comment periods, public hearings, working groups, and meetings by special invitation so that we can make the current system as accessible and functional for our farmers as possible.
The last most common way we engage in advocacy is through opposing permits of facilities that directly threaten the future of farming in Oregon. This is most related to our membership in the Stand Up to Factory Farms Coalition and our foundational belief that agriculture needs to be conscious of its impact on ecosystems and their ability to sustain communities into the future. Factory farming not only endangers the immediate ability for other producers to steward their land and respect their natural resources, but also has negative effects on the changing climate, and long term availability/quality of water, soil and air. We use every opportunity available in the permitting processes for these factory farms to make sure that they are not using too much of the limited resources of rural communities, that their action is not decreasing the possibility of success for small producers in the area, and that agencies take into account the health of the food system as a whole when deciding what kind of agriculture to prioritize in Oregon.
What We Are Up Against
This is a tale as old as time; David vs Goliath, Money vs People, Power vs Community. We know that the farmers we represent care about so much more than their bottom line. They care about protecting the air, water and soil; they care about climate resilience; they care about equity in the food system; and most importantly they care about providing food to their communities that reflects their values. This means that we are often at odds with bigger, wealthier industry groups that reflect a focus on profit in agriculture. They are ever present in Salem. They have the resources through membership fees and industry donations to send multiple lobbyists to monitor everything that goes on. We are not always against these groups, sometimes we find common ground, but we always have to be vigilant that their ubiquity does not signal to lawmakers that they are the only farmers who are affected by or care about their decisions. According to statistics from the Oregon Department of Agriculture, 33% of Oregon’s farms operate on 9 acres or less. When “small farms” as designated by the USDA (gross sales of $250K or less) account for 91% of registered farm businesses in the country but the industry groups affecting systems change represent only the biggest farms, we know something is wrong. We need to bring the voices of small producers into the conversation to make sure that there are opportunities for them to succeed as well.
We are also up against the groups outside of the agricultural sector. Developers and extractive industries like mining and timber often threaten viable farmland and contribute to rising land prices. Municipal land use and spotty county by county land use restrictions limit agritourism opportunities like u-pick operations and farm stands. Outside groups working in environmental and animal rights spaces without farmer input often have campaigns and propose legislation that would directly impact farmers. We work to bring small farm perspectives to these efforts and find points of collaboration so our farmers, who hold the values of environmental stewardship, animal welfare, and equity in their approach, can find ways to thrive in Oregon and continue feeding their communities.
Challenges and Limitations of Advocacy
There is a common misconception within the public that any forms of advocacy are not allowed by nonprofits, or that engaging in this type of system change can endanger an organization’s tax exempt status. This is largely overblown. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, we are able to engage in many types of advocacy, but have to draw lines on specific types of lobbying efforts. We are not able to endorse political candidates or engage in any electioneering activities. We are inherently a nonpartisan, issues based group. We never support or oppose a candidate for office, and any time we engage with candidates (such as candidate forums, or voter questionnaires), we invite every registered candidate to participate and give them equal treatment. We also are only allowed to engage in limited direct lobbying, as long as it does not encompass a “substantial part” of our efforts. Lobbying, as defined by the IRS for tax exempt organizations is “attempting to influence legislation.” This means that most of our interactions with decision makers are well outside that definition.
- Activities allowed for 501(c)3 Organizations: Gathering stakeholder feedback on issues facing communities, making policy recommendations or issuing white papers based on stakeholder feedback, participating in implementation efforts (working groups, public comments/hearings, etc.) by regulatory agencies (ODA, DEQ, USDA, etc.), educating the public on issues facing their stakeholders, training the public to engage in civic procedures, connecting legislators with their constituents to build relationships and tell their stories.
- Activities limited for 501(c)3 organizations: Endorsing candidates for office, directly or using the public to request support or opposition from elected officials on particular legislation.
Our goal has always been to make a system in which small and midsize, socially and ecologically responsible farmers have the resources and freedom to thrive in Oregon. Advocacy is one tool in our toolbox and we use it to the best of our ability to level the playing field with industrial agriculture.
How YOU Can Get Involved!
The best thing you can do to get involved is stay on our email list and follow us on social media! We send out time sensitive opportunities to engage in all parts of the advocacy process. Because we don’t have control over the legislative or administrative timeline for many of these statewide decisions, it is essential to get the notices as soon as you can so that your voice can be added to the chorus of local food supporters urging action to those in power. Notices here may include opportunities for you to engage directly with your legislator or local officials, so putting in your address when signing up for our list is essential to get the notices about your area. This is also how to learn about our biennial priority setting survey and other opportunities to provide feedback that shapes our goals.
If you want to be more deeply involved in our advocacy and programs, sign up to volunteer with us. We have one off volunteer opportunities, but also some longer term projects to help us do research, conduct follow up outreach to our farmers, and help us make sure our actions are continuously aligned with the most important needs of our community.
Let us know what is happening in your community! If there is a direct threat to the small farms in your area, please send us the details to our main email account: firstname.lastname@example.org. The most important things to let us know are the nature of the threat, who is responsible for the decisions in question (is it the county land use board? The ODA? A municipality?), if there are any public hearings or comment periods coming up, and how this issue will directly impact your farm or neighbors. We don’t have the capacity to address absolutely every issue that arises, but those with a clear, actionable solution and support from the farmers in the area will be assessed by our team to determine appropriate measures. The things we can generally help with are: testimony for public hearings; turning out public comments from your area for permits, etc; publicizing situations through our social media and website; outreach to other appropriate partner organizations; help with writing letters to the editor; assistance in scheduling legislator and agency official meetings.
Become a member of Friends of Family Farmers. The best way to bolster our voice and support the work we do for Oregon’s farmers is to join us as a member. This is an endorsement of our work and the more people we have in dedicated membership to our organization, the more powerful the voice we bring to Salem and beyond. Because we know we will never match the industrial agribusinesses in the amount of profit derived from the farmers we serve, it is essential to have strength in numbers to advance our collective goals.